The Tale Of A Bird Detective

Pepper Trail is one of the few forensic ornithologists in the country. Trail testified this week in a trial of a man accused of smuggling a song bird into the country to use in a songbird competition.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Our next guest testified in federal court this week in New York about these two singers who were smuggled into the U.S. to compete for money.

(Soundbite of chirping birds)

SIEGEL: That's right. We read in The New York Times about how much immigrants from Guyana love their songbirds. These are called Towa Towas. The Guyanese pay hundreds of dollars, maybe a couple of thousand to buy them, and they take them out to the park for singing contests with cash prizes.

Well, one Guyanese immigrant was caught smuggling 13 birds hidden inside plastic hair curlers into the U.S. His lawyer, in fact, gave us this recording of two of them. And one thing that intrigued me about the case was the role played by one Dr. Pepper Trail of Ashland, Oregon, who testified as a forensic ornithologist.

Dr. Trail, welcome to the program.

Dr. PEPPER TRAIL (Forensic Ornithologist): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, tell us what you told the court, what was your relevant testimony as a forensic ornithologist in this particular case?

Dr. TRAIL: Well, I work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they were the people who brought the case. And the question that I was asked to testify about was the taxonomy of this group of birds because the law that covers the protection of wild birds in Guyana dates from 1919. As you can imagine in the almost 100 years since the law was adopted, there have been some taxonomic changes. So as an ornithologist I was asked to testify about the taxonomy of these songbirds.

SIEGEL: And in other cases in which you've testified, similar questions or usually different?

Dr. TRAIL: Usually I'm testifying about the identification of bird remains that have been submitted to the laboratory for forensic analysis.

SIEGEL: Now, is identification of a bird, is that now all DNA analysis or does it involve eyeballing remains and knowing that that is whatever?

Dr. TRAIL: Well, we use both techniques. My personal position at the laboratory is the eyeball variety. All of my identifications are made by anatomical comparisons of the morphology, the shape and the physical characteristics of the bird remains with reference standards. So these could be museums type study skins or they could be prepared skeletons.

Perhaps the most unusual way I've ever received evidence was a Styrofoam takeout container from a restaurant, which was submitted to the laboratory, wrapped in evidence tape. I opened it up. Inside was a tiny little bird breast on a tiny little piece of toast with some dried parsley and some dried mustard sauce. And this was the evidence in the case.

So we gave this gourmet treat to our beetles. They removed the flesh for us, leaving me with a little tiny bird breastbone, which I determined it was a woodcock found in New England. And it's a game bird, but it cannot be legally sold in a restaurant. And our agents had received a tip that this restaurant indeed was selling woodcock.

And based on my identification, they did a raid and recovered hundreds of frozen woodcock breasts. So you never quite know what evidence you'll be receiving in my job.

SIEGEL: Now, the birds that the Guyanese take out to the park in New York, and you know, I suppose they're abusing the birds at one level, but it's a lot sweeter than cockfighting or something like that. They enjoy their songs. They call them Towa Towas. What do you call them?

Dr. TRAIL: Well, they have two common English names, Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch is the more usual name, also sometimes called a Lesser Seed Finch. Yeah, I mean, the birds, once they're safely adapted to life in captivity, you know, their diet is such that they can be raised in captivity. But the operation to get the birds from South America to North America, of course, as you mentioned earlier, is smuggling and often involves the death of many birds.

So, international trade in wild birds is a problem that is impacting populations of birds in many parts of the world. So it's definitely something that Fish and Wildlife is concerned about. And there are also, of course, concerns about diseases that birds may carry from one part of the world to another.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Pepper Trail, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. TRAIL: You're very welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Pepper Trail, a forensic ornithologist who's based in Ashland, Oregon.

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