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Cedar Waxwings' Dinner Party

Photo credit: fishhawk on flickr CC by 2.0

Dinner party | Cedar waxwings
Credit: fishhawk on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

This week, I laughed when a friend sent me a mock-up of a Canada-USA map showing an area as Colder Than Mars.

Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)Ron Knight (sussexbirder on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBut then I remembered how hard the extreme cold temperatures are on birds this time of year. In September, I wrote How to Help Wild Birds Survive the Winter.

Then I caught CBC's Cheryl Kawaja report on YouTube about birds (mostly Bohemian waxwings) who sometimes get drunk on fermented mountain ash berries.

Fortunately, Environment Yukon will take them in and place them in a tiny drunk tank with a warm blanket until they sober up.

I couldn't help but think of that Looney Tunes episode where the drunk stork delivers the wrong baby to a couple of ape parents. I happened to find a 7-second video to remind you on YouTube (shown next).

"Congratulations [hiccup] You're A Mother"

Published on Jan. 3rd, 2014 by mac00gt (only 7 seconds)

Cedar WaxwingMatt MacGillivray (qmnonic on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericObviously, Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club isn't the source of booze for these birds; waxwings primarily consume fruit and berries.

The problem arises when overripe fruit and berries are subjected to early frosts and thaws - the ideal conditions to produce alcohol.

Waxwings eat mountain ash berries whole, although any fruit or berry source can be problematic.

When I researched it some more, I found out that in northern Australia they've actually coined the phrase drunken parrot season.

In an article by Natalie Muller, ornithologist Dr. Glen Chilton at James Cook University stated, "They don't want to ingest a lot of alcohol, but they're probably just being forced into the situation because there's not a lot of fruit available to them."

Red-Collared Lorikeets (Trichoglossus rubritorquis)

Many aren't just mildly drunk, they're completely sloshed for days

Red-Collared Lorikeet
Credit: Greg Scales on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Intoxication in Birds

_MG_6492-43.jpgDavid A Mitchell (firstmac on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericIn a CTV News report by Josh Elliot, Meghan Larivee (laboratory coordinator of the Yukon’s animal health unit) described the following telltale signs that birds are berry-drunk:

Traces of berry juice is visible on their beaks

Symptoms show up immediately after eating

Having difficulty taking off to fly

Unable to co-ordinate wings adequately in flight

Appearing to stumble about on the ground

Falling out of trees

Exhibiting trouble walking in a straight line

Struggling to stand up

Wonder if their singing is affected too? 

According to a PLOS one research article titled Drinking Songs: Alcohol Effects on Learned Song of Zebra Finches, alcohol does not visibly affect willingness to sing or how often. However, it has marked effects on the acoustic features of a learned song [how it sounds], particularly entropy [gradually becoming chaotic] and with a decrease in amplitude [becoming quieter].

Bird flew into window November 15, 2013 - Sad - Cedar WaxwingAlan Light on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBut the most dangerous consequence is when they are too drunk to fly. They might confuse reflective surfaces or windows with open spaces and fly full speed into them.

Some birds are temporarily stunned and recover but many die from their injuries.

And even though Bohemian waxwings have large livers, Larivee explained in a Toronto Star article by Daniel Otis:

"The problem is compounded when the birds store extra berries in their crops (an expandable pouch in their throat) where the berries ferment further before entering their digestive system, giving the birds a second hit of the joy juice."

Blackbirds Found to Have Alcohol in Liver

Published on Nov. 7th, 2012 by geobeats (only 1:01)

Help and Care of Intoxicated Birds

Do they take them to the Birdy Ford Clinic?

If you happen to witness a bird displaying the signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication, contact your local animal control, wildlife authority, or wildlife rehabilitator.

Depending on the bird, I found out that Bohemian waxwings usually only require a few hours to sober up in a makeshift drunk tank (which is a plastic hamster cage with a warm blanket). Some species of birds require a couple of days to get their "flying wings" back.

In an Audubon article by Susan E. Matthews, I found out that intoxication of birds also occurs in the spring - when fruit and berries thaw. She explained:

"Cold temperatures concentrate the sugar in fruit, and then a temperature increase accelerates the speed at which the sugars break down. The alcohol that forms is more potent than what would normally come from fermented berries - think of it as vodka instead of beer."

Many waxwings
Credit: Bruce Guenter on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Prevention?

While there probably is no way to prevent birds from overindulging on berries, perhaps it's unwise to leave any unemptied bottles of booze outside.

According to a story in Spiegel Online International, a brown owl (aka tawny owl) was spotted in Germany sitting beside a road, too inebriated to notice (or react to) passing traffic.

Oh the owl wasn't injured, but police officers called to the scene noticed one of its eyelids drooping and two small bottles of schnapps nearby. The owl was given plenty of water by a local bird expert and released back into the wild once sober.

Winking tawny owl
Credit: Martin Thomas on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
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