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Smuggled Birds: a threat to America's
Caged bird and poultry industries
May 1998 Veterinary Services
Every year, around 25,000 birds are smuggled into the United
States. Most of them are brought in during the hatching season
for wild birds, from the beginning of January through mid-May.
Most of the birds originate from Central America, South America,
and Mexico. Smuggled birds that don't die from illness or stress
are often disease carriers.
Most of these birds are the popular hookbilled variety that have
been called time bombs of disease and rightly so! While many show
no symptoms, they often carry the contagious virus that causes
exotic Newcastle disease. U.S. poultry and caged birds are
extremely vulnerable to this virus; if contracted by just one
bird, the disease spreads rapidly to others, then from location
to location. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates the importation
of birds to keep this costly disease out of the United States.
Pet Bird Popularity in the United States
Experts believe that 15 percent of U.S. households now include
pet birds. In 1974, about 28,000 birds entered the country in
legal commercial shipments; by fiscal year 1984, that number had
risen to almost 742,000. For each of the past 3 years, about
140,000 birds were imported.
Rules for Importing Birds
In response to outbreaks of exotic Newcastle disease in the
United States, APHIS developed strict regulations for importing
birds. Travelers entering the country with birds must leave them
in quarantine for 30 days at an APHIS import facility. Owners
must reserve space ahead of time and pay the full quarantine fee
no later than the date of arrival. They must also obtain a health
certificate for the bird in the nation of its origin and arrange
for shipping the bird to its final destination after its release
from quarantine. Copies of the regulations for importing pet
birds can be obtained from APHIS.
Exotic Newcastle Disease
Velogenic viscerotropic and velogenic neurotropic (or exotic)
Newcastle disease virulent forms of the milder Newcastle
disease can affect virtually all species of birds and are
especially dangerous to young birds and birds kept in
confinement. Some birds may carry the causative virus and spread
it to others but never become ill themselves. Sick birds may die
before any obvious symptoms of the disease appear. Birds with
exotic Newcastle disease may act listless and breathe heavily,
become progressively weaker, and suffer internal bleeding and
severe diarrhea. Epidemics in poultry flocks can kill up to 95
percent of the birds. The disease is not a health hazard to
people eating poultry or eggs, but it can cause transitory eye
inflammations to those who handle infected birds.
U.S. Outbreaks and the Smuggled Bird Connection
A major epidemic of exotic Newcastle disease in southern
California from 1971 to 1974 resulted in the destruction of 12
million birds, mostly laying hens. Since then, there have been
outbreaks of the disease in pet birds, but because of action by
State and Federal eradication teams, exotic Newcastle disease
virus has not reached commercial poultry flocks. USDA
epidemiologists studying the disease have traced these outbreaks
directly to smuggled birds. Thanks to cooperation and continued
vigilance by bird owners and dealers and Federal and State
agencies, the United States has experienced only two
smuggled-bird-related outbreaks of the virulent forms of
Newcastle disease in the 1990's.
Economic costs: not chickenfeed
The outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in southern California
cost U.S. taxpayers $56 million to eradicate. Since then, APHIS
has spent an average of $1 million a year to stop outbreaks
resulting from smuggled birds. The money covers indemnities for
destroyed birds, salaries for members of eradication teams, and
the purchase of equipment and supplies.
If exotic Newcastle disease became established in America, it
could cost the poultry industry over $230 million a year,
increasing the cost of eggs and poultry to consumers. In 1987,
infected birds from wholesalers in 2 States spread exotic
Newcastle disease virus to 10 States. Total eradication costs
came to $274,843.
Exotic Bird Bargains? not likely!
If you are offered an exotic bird deal too good to believe, don't
take it. That bird was probably smuggled into the country and is
very likely to be diseased. A low price won't compensate for the
financial loss to poultry flock owners and increased consumer
costs for poultry and egg products if the smuggled bird starts an
Birds native to other lands but raised in the United States are
produced here in small numbers. Because it is expensive and time
consuming to raise them and because demand exceeds supply, owners
don't offer domestically raised exotic birds at
Punishment for Smugglers
Bird smugglers can be sentenced up to 5 years in prison and fined
up to $20,000 per violation if convicted under a law administered
by the U.S. Department of Interior's (USDI) U.S. Fish and
How to help
Deal only with reputable pet shops or wholesale dealers companies
that have been recommended or that have been in business for a
number of years.
If you respond to a classified advertisement for a bird, make
sure it is being offered by a bona fide dealer or breeder.
Be suspicious if the price of a bird is lower than normal, and be
wary of any advertised at rock-bottom prices. (See hotline note
Make certain to check for the circular stainless-steel,
USDA-approved leg band always engraved with three letters and
three numbers before buying an imported hook billed bird. This band
is your assurance of a legally imported bird.
Isolate newly purchased birds from others you own for at least 30
days. If any of your birds seem uncoordinated or have trouble
breathing, contact local veterinarians or animal health officials
immediately. If birds die, place them in plastic bags and
refrigerate them so they may be submitted to a diagnostic
laboratory. Your local veterinarian or State or Federal animal
health official will arrange for any necessary testing.
If you suspect illegal activity, call APHIS' Emergency Programs
at (301) 734-8073.
Bird dealers should maintain a good working relationship with a
veterinarian who specializes in poultry diseases.
If you're planning to buy a bird overseas, learn about the strict
regulations for bringing it into the United States. Obtain a free
copy of the pamphlet "Importing a Pet Bird" by writing:
Pet Bird Pamphlet
4700 River Road, Unit 1
Riverdale, MD 20737-1229
Support this education effort! If you belong to a bird club or
industry group, copy this fact sheet and distribute it to members.
USDA Smuggled Bird Hotline (301) 734-8073
USDA Fish and Wildlife Service (703) 358-2104
Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (202) 452-1525
American Federation of Aviculture (602) 484-0931