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The world of Guyanese bird-singing contests

A Guyanese man was caught smuggling nine finches on a flight at JFK airport in New York City yesterday.

While this spawned such sensational headlines as “Bird-napper caught at JFK for smuggling bird” and “JFK flier caught with finches up his sleeves,” the reason this man was smuggling in these birds from overseas is noteworthy.

Although certain types of birds, including songbirds and parrots, fetch huge amounts of money as pets on the black market in the U.S., this man was smuggling in birds for Guyanese bird-singing competitions in Queens.

In Guyana, it’s a common practice for people to partake in something called “bird racing.” This is the practice of raising competitive songbirds and pitting them against one another to see which bird sings the best.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Columbia Journalist about three years ago that describes bird-singing competitions:

The competition is simple: one man will quietly challenge another to place their bird cages side by side, remove cloth cage covers and let their finches do what they do best: sing their mating song. There’s not a female finch in sight, but the males vie for her attention anyway. They tweet sweetly and rapidly, sometimes fluttering wildly around their cages. The men watch and listen intently, silently counting to 50, usually the number of tweets a finch must sing before being declared the winner.

The neighborhood of Richmond Hills in Queens is the only area outside the West Indies that bird racing is practiced so fervently.

While the competitions themselves don’t necessarily break any laws, most Guyanese believe the most mellifluous sounding songbirds called Towa Towa are found in Guyana, which is why people are caught trying to smuggle finches through JFK so often.

The U.S. prohibits anyone from bringing in animals without declaring them.

Aside from winning competitions, the stakes for smuggling finches from Guyanese are high because large amounts of money are usually involved. Finches with great singing voices can sell for thousands of dollars. Some rumors even claimed that money was wagered in the competitions, but many say it’s simply untrue.

Still, this interesting practice and custom should not be tainted by a few bird smugglers. More and more Guyanese in Queens are learning to breed finches domestically and carefully tend to their birds like any other pet bird.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.