The 24 lime-green parrot chicks chirped and turned their heads whenever anyone approached the large cages where they have lived since hatching in March.
The birds, native to Central America, were confiscated from a smuggler at Miami International Airport and are being grown at the Rare Species Conservation Foundation, a constant effort that includes hand-feeding them five times a day in a room filled with large cages.
They're just 9 weeks old, but these parrots have already survived a tough journey after being snatched from their nests in a forest. They are almost full feathered now and the staff have begun to switch their feed from a special formula to a diet of food balls and fruit.
“Are you ready to meet the kids?” Paul Reillo, a professor at Florida International University and director of the foundation, asked as he led visitors Friday to a small building behind a large house in rural Loxahatchee. near West Palm Beach.
“They are hand-reared babies,” she said as the chicks chirped and looked curiously at the visitors. “They have never seen mom and dad, we have raised them since they hatched.”
It was the faint calls of chicks in a carry-on bag at the Miami airport that caught the attention of a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent. The passenger, Szu Ta Wu, had just arrived on March 23 on TACA Airlines Flight 392 from Managua, Nicaragua, and was making a stopover in Miami to return home to Taiwan, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court. in Miami.
The officers stopped Wu at a checkpoint. He was asked about the noise coming from his bag, which Reillo later described as a “sophisticated” temperature-controlled cooler.
Wu reached in, pulled out a smaller bag, and showed an officer an egg, according to the complaint. Then the agent looked inside and saw more eggs and a tiny featherless bird that had just hatched.
The man told the agent there were 29 eggs and he had no documentation to transport the birds, according to the legal document.
Wu was arrested and convicted on May 5 of smuggling birds into the United States. He could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison when sentencing on August 1.
The court documents did not name a lawyer who could speak on his behalf, although Wu told investigators through a Mandarin translator that a friend had paid him to travel from Taiwan to Nicaragua to collect the eggs. He said he did not know what kind of birds they were.
The agent confiscated the bag and contacted the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service. By then, eight of the chicks had hatched or were hatching.
It didn't take long for federal authorities to contact Reillo.
“They didn't know what these things were and they wanted my opinion on it,” Reillo said. Parrot chicks do not have feathers, so they are difficult to properly identify.
In a frantic race to save the chicks, he helped set up a makeshift incubator in the Department of Agriculture aviary at the airport.
The next day, Dr. Stacy McFarlane, a veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture who originally cared for the eggs and chicks at the airport, along with other officials, turned over the remaining chicks and eggs to Reillo's conservation project.
“At the time it was all a time trial,” he said. “We had all these eggs, the chicks were hatching, the incubator was running, and by the time it was over, we got 26 of the 29 eggs to hatch, and 24 of the 26 chicks survived.”
Department of Agriculture regulations required the birds to be quarantined for 45 days, so Reillo and his team had to clean themselves when they left and entered the room.
But they were still unclear which of the 360 varieties of parrots they had on their hands.
A forensic team at the Florida International Airport took DNA samples from the shells and dead birds to identify the species. They found that the 24 surviving parrots came from eight or nine clutches and included two species: yellow-naped parrots, or yellow-naped amazons, and yellow-cheeked parrots, or red-fronted amazons.
Both are popular in the animal trafficking and cage bird industry because they are good-looking and good-natured, Reillo explained.
The smuggling route from Central America has been consolidated for years, he said.
“In fact, the biggest threat to parrots globally is a combination of habitat loss and trafficking,” Reillo said. 90% of the eggs are stolen by poachers for the illegal parrot trade, he noted.
BirdLife International considers the Yellow-naped Amazon “critically endangered”, with a free-ranging population of between 1,000 and 2,500 individuals. The red-fronted amazon is also designated as population declining.
“The vast majority of these trafficking cases end in tragedy,” Reillo said. “The fact that the eggs were hatching on the first day of their journey from Managua to Miami tells us that it is extremely unlikely that any would have survived if (the passenger) had made it all the way to his destination in Taiwan. That would have been another 24 or 36 hours of travel.”
Reillo now has the challenge of finding a permanent home for the birds, which can live 60 or 70 years or more. He is working with the Fish and Wildlife Services on a plan "to let the birds fly free and help restore their species to the wild."
“Parrots live a long time. They are conscious creatures. They are very smart, very social and these guys deserve a chance,” she said. “The question is, where are they going to end up? What will your trip be? It just started."