The 24 bright green baby parrots began chirping and bobbing their heads the second anyone neared the large cages that have been their homes since hatching in March.
The Central American natives, seized from a smuggler at Miami International Airport, are being raised by the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation — a round-the-clock effort that includes five hand feedings a day in a room filled with large cages.
At just 9 weeks old, these parrots have already survived a harrowing journey after being snatched from their nests in a forest. They are almost fully feathered now and the staff has started transitioning them from a special formula to a diet of food pellets and fruit.
“You ready to meet the children?” asked Paul Reillo, a Florida International University professor and director of the foundation, as he led visitors Friday into a small building tucked behind a sprawling house in Loxahatchee, a rural community near West Palm Beach.
“They are hand-raised babies,” he said, as the chicks squawked and looked inquisitively at the visitors. “They’ve never seen mom and dad; they’ve been raised by us since they hatched.”
It was the hatchlings’ faint chirping inside a carry-on bag at the Miami airport that brought them to the attention of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. The passenger, Szu Ta Wu, had just arrived on TACA Airlines flight 392 from Managua, Nicaragua, on March 23, and was changing flights in Miami to return home to Taiwan, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Miami.
Officers stopped Wu at a checkpoint. He was asked about the sound coming from his bag, which Reillo later described as a “sophisticated” temperature controlled cooler.
Wu reached in and pulled out a smaller bag and showed the officer an egg, the complaint said. The officer then looked inside and saw more eggs and a tiny featherless bird that had just hatched.
He told the officer there were 29 eggs, and that he did not have documentation to transport the birds, according to the complaint.
Wu was arrested, and on May 5 pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling birds into the United States. He faces up to 20 years in prison when he’s sentenced Aug. 1.
A lawyer who could speak on his behalf was not listed on court records, but Wu told investigators through a Mandarin interpreter that a friend had paid him to travel from Taiwan to Nicaragua to pick up the eggs. He denied knowing what kind of birds…
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