Last winter, Ray Harinarain, a heating and air-conditioning contractor living in Brooklyn, flew home to Guyana with several thousand dollars in cash. Escorted by armed guards, he drove from village to village, examining wild finches like some veterinary talent scout. The birds had been captured in nearby forests using glue strips or nets. Some were visibly frightened by life in captivity. A few had begun the halting process of habituation, waiting on their perches instead of bashing against the bars. And the “baddest” birds—which in Guyanese patois means the best birds—were just about ready to burst into song.
The chestnut-bellied seed finch, known in Guyana as the towa-towa, is at the center of a lucrative underground trade that culminates in Queens, New York, where immigrant Guyanese men engage the birds in elaborate, secretive competitions. Male finches sing to attract mates and intimidate their rivals; owners and spectators bet on them, awarding victory to the bird that sings most vigorously. The competitions, or “races,” resemble a kind of bloodless cockfighting—at once a display of human and avian masculinity. And yet the song, clean and delicate, is archetypically sweet, like something you might hear on a recorded meditation.
The tradition known as “birdsport” has given rise to a lucrative underworld business, with champion finches selling for as much as nine thousand dollars. Customs agents at New York airports have come across finches drugged with rum and tucked inside hair curlers; sometimes the tiny birds wake in transit and begin singing. One man was caught with finches in his pants. Another hid finches in a package of Guyanese sugar cakes. Alarmed by the threat of avian disease, as well as the links between finch trafficking and other forms of crime, federal authorities have clamped down on the trade, jailing smugglers and investigating the networks that support them. This is what led Harinarain, around six years ago, to try to take the business legal, first by breeding the birds—which was too difficult, he says—and then by setting up as a legitimate importer. But that has proved even harder.
By law, all wild birds entering the country must be quarantined for thirty days in case they are carrying diseases. This is to prevent outbreaks such as the bird flu of 2015—and has become more urgent in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which is widely thought to have originated from viruses in wild animals. Yet finches, like most people, do not enjoy life in quarantine. This is an abiding belief among the finch men of New York whose spending propels the black market. A few years ago, after getting busted at JFK airport with thirty-one birds in toilet rolls, one smuggler wrote in an affidavit that finches “are not the same” after going through quarantine. “So in order to get good birds you have to avoid quarantine,” he wrote. “The birds just do not sing well.”
Harinarain lays claim to being the city’s first legal importer of Guyanese finches, and he has taken on the role of informal spokesman for a community that shuns publicity, giving interviews to the New York Times and the Times of London, among others. He is in his mid-forties, with quick eyes and an imposing belly; he usually wears a gold or silver chain over his shirt. His accent is a hybrid of the Caribbean and New York, where he emigrated with his parents at the age of fourteen. In his youth he was a champion pool hustler, winning a collection of trophies he displays in his garage. He owns a Mustang, a BMW, and, depending on how business is going, several dozen finches, which fill his home with their music.
Before the pandemic, Harinarain would travel to Guyana two or three times each year, calling on trappers and middlemen across the sugar belt, one of the most economically blighted regions of South America. A small nation on the continent’s northern edge, Guyana was a British colony for nearly two centuries, exploiting the labor of African slaves and nearly half a million indentured workers from India; culturally the country faces the Caribbean and the British Commonwealth, with cricket and reggae music and crumbling Victorian buildings. In recent years the sugar industry has collapsed, leading to the closure, in 2018, of all but a few government sugarcane factories. The surging value of finches in New York has coincided with this loss of jobs to create a cash economy in which Harinarain, who is descended from Indian cane cutters, plays a commanding and profitable role. “Some guys down in Guyana now,” he told me, “instead of minding a cow or a sheep or something, they get more money from the birds.”
Prices start at around one hundred dollars but rise quickly for promising singers. On his last trip, Harinarain spent four thousand dollars on a bird for himself. Less than a decade ago, when the anthropologist Laura Mentore studied the trade, average prices in villages were around twenty dollars, testament to the inflationary power of exports. Birdsport has a rich history in Guyana and remains hugely popular across the country, yet its spread among the diaspora, coupled with the strength of the dollar, has begun reshaping the supply chain. By the early 2000s, a “well organized illegal export system” was already operating in Guyana, Cullen Hanks, a Cornell ornithologist who has researched the industry, told me. “Finches are a cultural institution entwined in people’s lives,” Hanks said.
Harinarain typically arrives in villages carrying over five thousand in local currency—many times more than what most rural Guyanese earn in a year. To protect himself, he hires bodyguards to accompany him. But buying finches without being hijacked is only the first of his concerns. From there, he must run the animals through a gauntlet of red tape—permits, brokers, shipping agents, and quarantine facilities, each with their own set of administrative demands. On the far side, potentially, lie not only profits but the status of being a big man in the finch game. “I’m like an icon with this bird,” Harinarain said. “I really control what’s going on.”
On December 13, 2019, he shipped 250 finches to JFK Airport. The total cost came to more than $150,000. Harinarain’s clients had paid upfront for about half the birds. The rest of the money, with no guarantees or insurance, came from his own pocket.
The home of finch racing in New York is Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park in the suburb of Richmond Hill, Queens, named after a Yankees shortstop who grew up in the area and distinguished himself with heroic acts of fielding. But the finch men prefer an older name: Smokey Park, from the ash that used to drift over from the Long Island Railroad terminus when the trains still ran on coal. Back then the neighborhood was home mainly to Irish, Italian, and German families; one section was known, from the nineteenth century onward, as “Berlin.” In the 1960s a sweeping demographic shift began, with new immigrants arriving from South Asia and the Caribbean, and today Richmond Hill—with its Hindu temples and roti shops and dive bars that screen cricket matches—is known as Little Guyana.
Smokey Park backs onto Atlantic Avenue and a cluster of warehouses along the railway tracks. Its other three sides are surrounded by large suburban homes, many of them filled by large extended families. The northern half of the park is given over to a baseball field where Punjabi Sikhs from northern India gather to play cricket and occasionally conspire against the finch men; a few years ago, some Sikhs lodged complaints about finch gambling that required delicate mediation from community leaders. Gathering at Smokey Park for finch races is a sanctified ritual; some men even refer to it as “Bird Church.” Finding parking on weekends has become a nightmare, with as many as 150 cars circling the block, but when some of the men proposed, a few years ago, relocating to a more spacious park in Queens, they were shot down for breaking with tradition.
The street poles around Smokey Park are studded with rusting nails for hanging cages, and some of the trees have been fitted with hooks for so many years that their bark has swallowed the wire. When two men agree to race, they lift their cages from these improvised pegs and place them, inches apart, on a shoulder-height spike driven into the ground for just this purpose. As soon as the birds see each other, they begin singing to defend their turf; the two judges tally each burst of whistles, and the first bird to fifty wins.
I first visited Smokey Park near the end of summer in 2019, taking a long bus ride down Atlantic Avenue, past car dealerships and fish shops and grocers selling mounds of plantains. As I walked toward the park I heard birdsong, tropical and incongruous in the suburbs, then came upon perhaps forty men huddled among the benches. I stopped to watch a finch race. The men ignored me in a quietly hostile fashion. A thin guy with a scar on his cheek was standing alone near one of the telephone poles; he was wearing a black Adidas tracksuit and a black cap and held a cage with a bird flitting inside. His name was Shaun. He worked in construction, he told me, building skyscrapers. This was his only finch; he was in the process of taming it. “When you hear that song,” he said, “it makes you think of home.”
Many wildlife trades are driven by people in one part of the world desiring products from another, whether for medicine or food or displays of status. The finch trade is different in that it is driven by a diaspora—people seeking connection to the place they left behind. Around as many Guyanese live abroad than within its borders, making the country, in effect, a nation of exiles. New York is home to more Guyanese immigrants than anywhere else in the world; in return, Guyanese people represent the city’s fifth-biggest immigrant population, and the second-biggest in Queens. Arrivals began increasing after 1965, when the United States loosened racial barriers to immigration, and by the 1980s as many as 10,000 Guyanese people were settling in New York each year. As the community grew, so did demand for finches. “But the older generation weren’t too educated about the system and how it works,” Harinarain said. “So the only way to get a bird here was smuggling.”
I arranged to meet Harinarain at his home in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, one Saturday morning after Bird Church. He drew up in a red BMW with lowered suspension and an airfoil, gunning the engine as he parked, and without greeting me retrieved two cages from the back seat. I followed him down the driveway to his backyard, where we sat, surrounded by building equipment, on a pair of battered couches. Suddenly he jumped up. “I gotta put the fan on for these finches,” he said. Then he swung open the doors to a cavernous double garage, revealing his bright red Mustang and about forty more birds in cages. “This is my main hobby,” he said. “Now I turned my hobby into a business.”
As we spoke, an elderly Guyanese man with a limp came in from the driveway. Harinarain greeted him in patois and introduced me. “What agency you with?” the man snapped at me. “Huh, you’re a spy!”
His name was Vishnu, but Harinarain called him Roy. He was in his late sixties and had recently suffered a stroke, leaving him with a drooping right eyelid. In more than thirty years of owning finches he’d seen the authorities clamp down on smuggling, and he was suspicious of my questions; later on, he trained an imaginary telescope on me and said: “I think I seen you before. Somewhere in the FBI. Let me see your badge.”
He warmed to me—if only slightly—when he recognized my accent as South African, where he’d traveled from Guyana in the 1960s to join the anti-apartheid struggle. He said he’d met Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness revolutionary who was assassinated by police a decade later, and recalled visiting Cape Town, my home city, “looking for a beautiful Black woman who broke my heart.”
A few years later, he emigrated to New York, where he found work installing roller doors. (He remembered the exact date he arrived: January 29, 1972.) In Guyana he’d kept finches since childhood, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that he could find any in the city. “Back home, you could sit down and you’ll see them flying all around,” he said.
“Yeah, but not now,” Harinarain interrupted him.
“Not now—it’s become such a large business. They go deep down in the jungle to get ‘em now.”
“People are constantly catching them,” Harinarain said.
“Right,” Vishnu said. “Because we people in America buy them.”
The male towa-towa has black wings and a chestnut belly and looks, with its dark tail, as if it is wearing a hooded cloak—the kind boxers remove when they step into the ring and flex for the cameras. A large adult male weighs about half an ounce. At least five species of songbird are traded for birdsport in Guyana, but the towa-towa is most popular, and its population has thinned in urban areas following decades of commercial trapping. While the species is not yet listed as threatened, conservationists worry about further losses; another species of finch, known as the twa-twa, was popular among an older generation of bird men but has almost vanished from Guyana and neighboring Suriname.
A paradox of the finch trade to New York is that the men who traffic them in straitjackets, or pay others to do so, also profess to love the birds deeply. “You cry when they die,” one man said, and I believed him. “That bird is part of you. It’s like your kid.”
But finches, like racehorses, also represent power and money. The owner whose finch sings best becomes King of the Park; his prestige rises, and his finch becomes more valuable. Many owners look to cash in on champion birds, selling them for many times their original price. A few months before I met Harinarain, an ironworker from Brooklyn had paid more than nine thousand dollars for a single finch. But because wild birds are considered better singers than domesticated ones, there is constant demand for new finches from Guyana. This can make being a finch supplier an attractive line of business.
Customs agents began catching finch smugglers at New York airports as early as 1992; one man arrested that year was busted in 2000, in 2008, and again the following year. But it was only after 9-11, as security tightened, that US authorities began to comprehend the extent of the trade. In 2006, agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service recruited an informant in the finch business, leading to an undercover investigation, dubbed Operation G-Bird, that ran for eight years. More than 150 finches were confiscated. Smugglers spent time in jail. A mood of suspicion descended on Smokey Park. And yet the shipments kept arriving—at least seven busts at JFK in 2018 alone, totaling more than 180 finches.
The pandemic briefly put an end to finch imports, both legal and illegal, and for a while nobody could buy new finches. But birdsport is suited in other ways to the restrictions of this era, taking place outdoors, socially distanced and contact-free. (In winter, the men typically gather indoors with their birds to drink and play cards, an activity that was curtailed during the dark months of the first wave.) Last June, as infections were receding in New York, I returned to Smokey Park; most of the men were wearing masks, and standing further apart than before. The finch community skews middle-aged and older; one man was in a wheelchair, and another leaned, looking fatigued, against the back of a bench. I met a chap named David who’d contracted the virus in April, followed by his wife, who works as a dentist. She was hospitalized and almost died. “I cried and prayed every night,” David said.
A recreational hunter and shark fisherman, he was dressed, that day, in a camouflaged hunting vest, accompanied by small hoop earrings and many gold chains. He took pains to define himself as a pet owner; most of the other men, he told me, were businessmen. “They buy the birds to sell them,” he said. “I’m not encountering anybody who kept one bird more than a year.”
“These birds are like money,” David added. “They pass from hand to hand.”
A bald, dark man with broad shoulders came over. The previous Sunday, his bird had defeated the reigning champion, reaching fifty notes in three minutes and 21 seconds; the other bird racked up forty-eight notes, which is about as close as a race can get. This meant that the man (who asked to remain anonymous) was now King of the Park. He’d been working toward this for years, buying birds from Harinarain and spending hundreds of hours training them. “It’s about bragging rights,” he said. “It’s very rewarding.” But while he claimed to be happy, he also seemed haunted. Everyone, from now on, would be coming for him.
Harinarain wasn’t at the park that day. He’d gone quiet months earlier, working overtime as a contractor, fitting ventilation systems in hospitals strained to breaking point by the coronavirus. “Been busy,” he would say whenever I texted him. Then he stopped answering altogether.
The reason he was putting in such long hours was that his bird shipment, back in December 2019, had been a financial and reputational disaster. The day he shipped the birds it was eighty-two degrees in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, and forty-five degrees in New York. The birds were packed in cargo crates. They sat on the tarmac at JFK for more than an hour. Then they were driven by U-Haul truck to the town of Newburgh, eighty miles upstate, where the US Department of Agriculture runs a quarantine facility. It cost Harinarain some eighteen thousand dollars to keep the birds there for thirty days.
Two days later, twenty-five birds had died. A total of forty-three birds were dead by the end of quarantine. The authorities informed Harinarain that his surviving finches would not be allowed into the country because they posed a disease risk; his options were to ship them back to Guyana—and pay the full cost of transport—or have them euthanized. Harinarain says the USDA failed to prove his birds were diseased; he believes they died from the cold or were infected at Newburgh. A USDA spokesperson told me that “all decisions related to the finches were made strictly for animal health reasons, based on signs of illness observed and disease testing completed.”
I last saw Harinarain this past winter, a few weeks after his birds were destroyed. He was renovating his home with help from a childhood friend named Morris. Morris was doing most of the work and Harinarain was issuing instructions, but from time to time Morris, in a rich Caribbean baritone, cussed at him amiably. There were empty beer bottles on the floor and a bottle of rum on the kitchen counter. There was birdseed everywhere. As Morris trimmed a piece of wood with a circular saw, I wondered how the noise was affecting the finches. Six of them occupied cages that hung from the ceiling vents. Harinarain lifted one cage toward another, provoking the bird to stiffen its feathers into a kind of mohawk and begin cheeping. “This one’s angry,” Harinarain said appreciatively. “I look for birds like that.”
Morris showed me a video of one of his own birds in training. The pattern of whistling, he told me, was like “a jab and a hard punch.”
“They intimidate each other,” Harinarain said, peering at the video, and put Morris back to work.
He walked into his new bedroom, its walls now painted the same bright red as his cars, and watched another finch flapping in its cage at the window. He was down nearly eighty thousand dollars on the shipment. More than one hundred customers had lost birds and money. “This puts a dent in the guys trying to do the right thing,” he said. “Now people don’t know which system to trust.” He told me he would begin saving again, aiming to return to Guyana and buy more finches.
“This shit,” he said, “is why people smuggle.”