‘Finch-Smuggling Kingpin' Gets Prison Time for Sneaking Birds Into NY for Competitions

"I’m going to stay away from the birds," the man pledged in a video he submitted to the court, "because it's trouble."

Hair rollers where finches were kept
U.S> Customs and Border Protection

A man who repeatedly admitted scheming to smuggle finches from Guyana into New York for birdsong competitions was sentenced Thursday to a year and a day in prison.

It was Insaf Ali's second time being sentenced in a Brooklyn federal court for a crime related to bird trafficking, and he vowed it would be his last.

“I’m going to stay away from the birds,” Ali pledged in a video he submitted to the court, “because it's trouble."

His lawyer, Christine Delince, said after court that she was disappointed in the sentence, which came after she and Ali detailed his longtime affinity for birds during a life fraught with personal and medical problems.

Ali, 62, pleaded guilty last summer to conspiring to import wildlife illegally. He was stopped at John F. Kennedy Airport in January 2022 with two packs of hair curlers that smugglers use to slip the small birds past customs officials.

He was previously arrested in 2018 carrying finch-stuffed hair curlers in his socks at JFK, authorities said. In that case, he pleaded guilty to smuggling and was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $7,800 fine.

Songbird competitions have been a pastime in the Caribbean for centuries. Aficionados judge the animals on such factors as how many times they chirp or sing.

But with the birds sometimes fetching thousands of dollars, the contests have fed wildlife trafficking that authorities in Latin America and the U.S. have tried to combat.

Stuffed into curlers and concealed to evade detection, finches sometimes die as they're flown to the U.S., and U.S. Customs and Border Protection worries that such smuggling could spread bird diseases.

Prosecutors argued in a Jan. 31 memo that Ali deserved “significant” prison time, calling him “one of New York’s finch-smuggling kingpins."

Delince asked for leniency. She said in a Jan. 26 memo that Ali is “incredibly remorseful” for a crime fueled by a love of seed finches that dates to his childhood in Guyana and has provided him solace through many personal difficulties.

“His actions were not just about money,” she wrote, saying the birds “are a part of him and a part of his culture.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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