In another life, Francis Gurahoo might have pursued a career as a hair stylist.
But the three dozen or so plastic hair rollers stashed in his carry-on luggage weren’t meant for luscious curls. Instead, authorities found 34 colorful finches inside those rollers — each capable of producing songs worth thousands of dollars.
If they win, that is.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn say Gurahoo’s attempt to smuggle the live birds from Georgetown, Guyana, through John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sunday was not inspired by his love of South American songbirds. The 39-year-old admitted he was “motivated by financial gain” and planned to sell the finches for about $3,000 each. A successful scheme would have netted him more than $100,000.
His plan was foiled by a customs exam, according to a complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York.
The practice of smuggling finches — via hair rollers, toilet paper rolls, pantyhose or socks, as others have tried, according to the New York Times — is hardly a novel concept.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers working at the airport have caught “numerous” people trying to sneak the birds into the United States from Guyana in recent years, according to the complaint, using creative methods to avoid the cumbersome importation process.
If they make it through the checkpoint, these birds are pitted against one another in singing contests at public parks in Brooklyn and Queens, where a judge determines which has the “best voice.” Sometimes, it’s a race to see which finch can sing the most songs.
While several species of finch exist in North America, some people genuinely believe Guyanese finches “sing better,” making them more attractive, according to prosecutors. Smugglers, in turn, profit by importing the crooners to the United States. Finches who win the avian-idol contest are extremely valuable and can sell for upward of $5,000, the complaint reads. A male finch with “a good pedigree and track record” can net its owner $10,000, the Times noted.
The complete nature of Gurahoo’s charges was not immediately clear, and his attorney could not be reached for comment Monday. Gurahoo did not apply for the permit to import the birds legally, the complaint said, opting instead to circumvent the mandatory 30-day quarantine.
Like many animals flown in from overseas, imported commercial birds must first be quarantined to prevent the spread of disease, including bird flu and Newcastle disease, a contagious and fatal illness that attacks the nervous system of birds and poultry. Some in the smuggling game argue the quarantine can be stressful for the birds, the Times reported, negatively impacting their vocal performances.
Customs officials did not return a request for comment Monday but told the Times in December they had intercepted nearly 200 Guyanese finches at Kennedy International Airport last year. Officers are not perturbed by the sight of finches, which they say are the animal most commonly trafficked through the airline.
The efforts of federal officials to stymie finch smuggling dates back more than a decade, documented by a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation. The 235-page report, titled “Operation: G-Bird,” details the agency’s covert analysis of the unlawful importation of finches. According to the Times, the investigation resulted in multiple arrests and the confiscation of about 150 birds.
More than 13 years later, Kennedy airport remains a popular smuggling source for finches and pretty much any other animal or plant one could imagine. Dead or alive.