Why are dozens of little birds being smuggled into the U.S.? They're believed to be destined for underground contests where gamblers bet on their chirping skills. A winning bird can sell for up to $10,000.

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Finches keep showing up at Kennedy International Airport in Queens. On flights from Guyana.

So far this year, customs officials say, nearly 200 of the tiny songbirds have made the arduous journey from South America, stuffed into plastic hair rollers or cardboard toilet-paper rolls and hidden in the luggage of smugglers who bring them illegally into the United States.

Sometimes, they are given a little rum before the trip to calm their nerves.

On Saturday, 70 live finches were discovered in the black duffel bag of a Guyanese citizen who, like the other smugglers, was believed to be bringing them to the United States to participate in underground singing contests. Gamblers set the birds against each other and place bets on their chirping skills.

A winning male finch with a good pedigree and track record can sell for up to $10,000, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation nicknamed Operation G-Bird.

“They bet on how many times the finches will chirp in a minute, which finch chirps the most,” Anthony Bucci, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York, said Wednesday. “The most common animal we see trying to be smuggled through the passenger environment are these birds, the finches.”

Finding the tiny birds rolled up in pantyhose or stuffed into socks and zipped into suitcases and carry-ons arriving at JFK has become unremarkable, he said.

“It goes in cycles, like everything else,” Bucci said. “It’s not an everyday occurrence or an every month occurrence, but it does happen.”

The most recent smuggler, whose name was not released, was sent back to Guyana. But his finches were admitted to the United States.

The birds were freed from the plastic hair curlers that kept them immobilized during the flight and were turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which placed them in quarantine, Bucci said. The agency did not respond to a message asking what would happen to them next.

Customs officers at Kennedy Airport have intercepted finch smugglers on at least seven occasions this year, seizing at least 184 birds, the agency said. As happened last week, the birds are given to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the smugglers — usually not U.S. citizens — are sent back to Guyana.

But not always. One smuggler, a Guyanese citizen intercepted in July with eight live finches hidden in his computer bag, was admitted to the United States and fined $300.

And in April, two men, Victor Benjamin and Insaf Ali, were arrested at JFK and charged with smuggling 26 of the birds between them in hair curlers rolled into their socks, court records show. Ali pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling in August, and Benjamin is due back in court in January.

Finches and their rapid singsong chirps are prized in parts of South America and the Caribbean, including Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname and Brazil, where finch handlers compete for prizes and prestige at tournaments and informal competitions.

That pastime has been transported to New York, where finch smuggling has become a big business. Not only do gamblers place bets on the winning chirper, but there is also big money to be made in the bird trade.

But finches are not all fun and games and lucrative song contests. Troy Miller, the director of field operations for the New York office of Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement that bird smuggling could pose a threat to American agriculture and the broader economy through the possible introduction of animal diseases like bird flu.

A bird flu outbreak in 2015 caused $850 million in damage and required the culling of 50 million commercial turkeys and chickens, he said.