THIS is the time of the year in Australia - the breeding season - when bird smuggling gangs are out in the bush raiding the nests of galahs, sulfur-crested cockatoos, Gang-gang parrots, and long-billed correllas.The thefts continue despite stiffer penalties enacted Sept. 1. Convicted bird smugglers can get 10-year jail sentences in addition to $100,000 (Australian; US$125,000) fines. But tougher laws didn't stop an American gang, charged Oct. 1 with conspiracy to smuggle parrot eggs out of the country. Three men were arrested at Sydney's airport wearing specially designed vests that carried 73 eggs; two sedated Major Mitchell cockatoos were found stuffed into padded cages. Two other men were arrested in Melbourne with another 73 eggs. Steve Crabb, the conservation minister for Victoria province, estimated the wildlife was worth A$1 million in the US. The extent of wildlife smuggling is unknown, but past news reports have indicated it may be a A$40 million business. "It's frequently called the second-largest smuggling problem after drugs," says Frank Antram of the World Wide Fund for Nature. Smugglers prefer eggs, Mr. Antram says. Live birds often die en route. Mr. Crabb estimates 500 eggs per year are taken illegally from the Mallee, a semi-desert area of Victoria. Smuggled eggs have to be handled carefully: The temperature of the eggs must be kept constant and each chick must be hand-fed. Using chain saws, bird thieves cut open tree hollows where birds nest and reach for the eggs with their hands. Once the nest is damaged, the parent birds will never return because the larger hole permits lizards and some hawks access to the nest. Australian birds have commanded a high price in the wildlife market, particularly after 1960, when the government halted legal exports of its wildlife. US buyers pay US$25,000 a pair for Gang-gang parrots, US$3,000 for sulfur-crested cockatoos, up to US$15,000 a pair for the brilliant Major Mitchell cockatoos, and US$1,100 to $3,000 per galah, according to Peter Coyne, an official at the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service in Canberra. In Europe the prices are somewhat lower.