Science

Don’t Drink and Fly

Canadian birds that hit the fermented berries too hard may be put in a drunk tank til they sober up.

Ever seen a wobbly bird flying haphazardly, looking like it’s drunk? Well, it probably is. First frosts cause remaining berries and tree fruit to ferment. Hungry birds prepping for winter binge on the boozy buffet. The result? Inebriated birds that can’t fly straight.

So, Environment Yukon, the territory's environment agency, set up a drunk tank where the birds can sober up safely. 

"They do in fact get drunk," Meghan Larivee, an Environment Yukon animal health unit employee, told CBC news. "So they're flying around but they're not as good at avoiding obstacles. Hitting windows is not uncommon."

The birds stay in the tank—actually a hamster cage—until they dry out, then they’re free to fly. 

Instances of avian intoxication have been well documented in both the scientific literature and the press. In August 2011, the discovery of 12 dead juvenile blackbirds caught the attention of some veterinary researchers. Post-mortem testing confirmed that the birds had likely downed too many fermented berries and tipsily flew to their deaths, according to a 2012 research letter in the journal Veterinary Record

One surviving bird was taken to a nearby wildlife rescue center. Even before seeing the toxicology report, staff treating it knew something was up. “The live bird was unsteady on its feet and placed both wings on the ground to support itself and lent against the walls of the enclosure to maintain posture ‘as though it was drunk,’” staffers told the researchers, according to the letter. 

There was the 2011 case of a German owl that needed to be removed from the road, Der Spiegel reported, noting that the blotto bird found the booze in discarded schnapps bottles, rather than nature. He was taken to a local bird expert, and survived the binge. 

A group of Cedar Waxwings weren’t so lucky. They ate too many over-ripe berries from a Brazilian pepper tree in Los Angeles and died, some from ruptured livers and others from flying under the influence, according to a 2012 report in the Journal of Ornithology. 

While first frosts can create fermenting berry traps for birds this time of year, this happens with even greater vengeance in the spring, when boozy berries and crabapples thaw. 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.  

If you spot an obviously intoxicated bird, you can let a wildlife rehabber know. It likely just needs a quiet place to sleep off the effects of alcohol, as Sharon Stiteler detailed in 2013 on her blog, BirdChick

The bird may experience a hangover after the ordeal, but hopefully nothing worse. According to Paul Duff, author of the 2012 research letter on drunken blackbirds, that may be the best outcome.

“There is little to prevent birds becoming intoxicated that comes to my mind,” he says. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Yukon as a province. It is a territory. 

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