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MIAMI - JULY 04: A driver who failed a field sobriety test at a DUI traffic checkpoint stands in handcuffs waiting to be processed June 4, 2007 in Miami, Florida. Several law enforcement agencies were conducting the checkpoint and conducting saturation patrols to help save lives during the 4th of July holiday. The National Safety Council has rated the July 4th holdiay as one of most lethal holidays for drivers, with alcohol factoring into nearly half of all motor vehicle deaths. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Authorities said he did so by strapping more than a dozen of the tiny Asian warblers to his calves in hopes of avoiding detection.
Sony Dong, 46, entered his plea in U.S. District Court to one count of illegally importing wildlife, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Williams said.
Dong and co-defendant Duc Le, 34, were named in an eight-count federal indictment in May charging them with illegally importing wildlife, including one injurious species, and lying to investigators.
Both were arrested after investigators discovered Dong had 14 live Asian songbirds, individually wrapped in cloth, strapped to his legs and ankles as he tried to pass through Los Angeles International Airport, according to court documents.
A subsequent search warrant executed at Le's home uncovered 51 additional songbirds and numerous cages, prosecutors said.
Le is set to face trial Oct. 27 before U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson.
The colorful singing birds are sold to collectors and exhibitors in the United States for up to $400 apiece, Williams said.
The investigation started late last year, when Customs officials at LAX discovered luggage allegedly abandoned by Dong containing 18 birds, five of which were dead, court papers show.
In early April, agents determined Dong had again flown to Vietnam and was scheduled to return. When he arrived at LAX after the 15-hour flight from Hanoi, a search turned up bird feathers and droppings on his socks, as well as tail feathers visible under his pants.
After he was brought to a quarantine area, agents searched Dong and discovered 14 live birds attached to two flat pieces of cloth wrapped around his calves, prosecutors said.
The birds included three red-whiskered bul-buls -- listed as an injurious species under federal law -- four magpie robins and six shama thrush. Under federal law, an injurious species is one that presents a health risk to humans, forestry or agriculture.
After linking Le to Dong's activities, investigators executed a search warrant at Le's home and found an outdoor aviary consisting of about 70 large bird cages that contained 51 Asian songbirds, according to court documents.
Federal law requires that all wildlife, including birds, be declared to customs at the port of first arrival in the United States.
Both men are free on bond and the birds are in quarantine, prosecutors said.