The two black finches whistled songs at each other in fluttering voices as a group of men crowded around their cages.
It was the first bird singing competition of the morning, and men on either side of the two cages counted the songs, each as fleeting as a haiku. The first finch to tweet 50 would be declared the winner.
For years, bird racing, as the sport is known, has been held in a park in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens on warm Sunday afternoons with scant attention from outsiders.
Yet the races have drawn increased scrutiny recently from law enforcement, as federal officials target illegal smuggling of finches from Guyana. Authorities also suspect the men place illegal bets on the birds.
The people who flock to the races, mostly Guyanese immigrant men, argue that it is simply a harmless cultural pastime.
"This is how we relax our minds," said Rajendra "Bush" Harinarian, who compared the sport to watching baseball for Americans. "We hang out with our friends, with the birds."
John Neal, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agent serving New York, said his agents investigate six to eight finch smuggling cases each year. Most of the birds are destined to compete in the races at Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto Park, previously known as Smokey Oval Park, he said.
The illicit trade is fueled by the demand for males of species native to Guyana known as the lesser-seed finch or "towa-towa," Neal said. Racing enthusiasts consider them the best singers, he said.
Though the smuggled birds sometimes die before arrival, the males that survive can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars in the U.S. market.