We’ve all had that time or two when we’ve overindulged, whether it is on alcohol, desserts, rich meals, or other treats, and we’ve all had to pay the price afterwards with hangovers, upset stomachs, lethargy, and general malaise. But what happens when a bird gets a bit tipsy?
Wait… Tipsy birds? Where do they get the booze?
As far as I know, there are no birders who knowingly fill bird baths or waterers with spirituous beverages, not even on special occasions. And even though “a bird flies into a bar” may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, I’ve never heard of it actually happening, at least not so far as the bird actually getting served by a feather-friendly barkeep. But birds do still manage to get their thirsty bills on fermentation, by way of natural fruits.
When small fruits, such as berries and crabapples, are still on trees in late fall, they aren’t just ripe, they’re overripe. An early frost or freeze can hasten the fruits’ fermentation, causing a bit of an ethanol buzz in the fruits before birds may naturally migrate – just a time when the birds are attempting to fatten up with extra fruit to fuel their impending journey. Furthermore, birds that stay in the same range through the winter may find fermented fruits remaining on trees and bushes long after the snow flies, and as other food sources dwindle, these overripe and tastily tangy fruits may be the only fare available.
Fruit-loving birds such as waxwings, robins, and thrushes tend to naturally overindulge when they find an available food source, in this case any tree or bush that still has dangling fruit. The birds will quickly strip the plant of its edible bounty, with little regard for the amount of alcoholic fermentation they are ingesting. Because birds have a poor sense of taste, they don’t recognize the extra bitter tang of the fruit, and instead they simple enjoy the rich treat – with intoxicating effects.
When a bird ingests too much of this alcohol-infused fruit (and it doesn’t take much to get a bird drunk when, feathers and all, they only weigh an ounce or two), they experience the same disorienting effects that alcohol can play on larger animals, namely, humans. Disorientation, dizziness, recklessness, and lethargy are all characteristic of drunk birds. They may fly in erratic patterns, bobbing and weaving in the air rather than flying smooth and straight. They could dart too close to traffic or crash into obstacles because of their impaired perceptions, and they may even lose their balance and fall off branches and other perches. Once on the ground, they may thrash around a bit as they try to regain their balance, or else will sit still and dazed, relaxing with these unusual sensations.
Just like humans can get into trouble when drunk, so too can birds be in danger when they’re intoxicated. A drunk bird is more vulnerable to predators, and cannot avoid obstacles such as trees, buildings, or vehicles as well. They may venture into unsafe areas, or simply overindulge so much that all their senses are dulled. And also like humans, younger birds have less tolerance for alcohol, and birds that have just hatched this year are more likely to exhibit intoxicating effects and general drunk and disorderly behavior.
But there is hope, and just like any hangover will eventually abate, drunk birds will gradually recover. Time, quiet, and rest are the best cures for the birds, as well as a source of clean, fresh water. While wildlife rehabilitators will care for birds that appear injured or exceptionally disoriented, in most cases leaving the birds alone and letting them recover on their own is sufficient. If the birds are in imminent danger, such as resting on a roadway or at risk from predators, they can be moved into an empty cardboard box (lined with newspaper if you wish, and with a small dish of clean water) in a calm, quiet area and left alone for several hours before being released to go on their not-quite-as-merry way. Perhaps, like many of us after one too many rounds, they will be just a little wiser about what they can tolerate as well.