BirdWatching experts help explain ‘drunk birds’ phenomenon to America

drunk birds
A Cedar Waxwing nabs a berry in Pike County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Alex Westner

In the last few days, national and local newspapers, magazines, and TV stations have carried stories about “drunk birds” reportedly flying into windows, acting confused, and being hit by cars. The coverage started after the police chief in the northeastern Minnesota town of Gilbert released a light-hearted public notice saying his department had “received several reports of birds that appear to be ‘under the influence.’”

Here are a few of the headlines this news has generated:

  • “Drunk birds are causing havoc in a Minnesota town. Police say they’ll sober up soon.” — Washington Post
  • “Drunk Birds Are Currently Terrorizing a Town in Minnesota” — Vice
  • “Drunk Birds Can’t Handle Their Alcohol, Are Flying Under the Influence Around Town” — Time
  • “Birds are getting ‘drunk’ off of berries and flying into windows, police say” — USA Today
  • “Drunk Birds? How a Small Minnesota City Stumbled Into the Spotlight” — New York Times. This accurate and carefully written story quotes two of our contributing editors, Laura Erickson and Kenn Kaufman. Laura points out that some robins or other birds may have been fleeing hawks. And Kenn tells the Times that the reports probably involved migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers crashing into windows.
  • “Are the birds in Gilbert actually drunk?” — KARE11, the local NBC affiliate in Minneapolis. This creative and thorough report also quotes Laura as well as Bob Dunlap of the Minnesota DNR who is also president of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

“It’s fine with me if birds drink, but in order to accuse them of drunkenness, we should at least check their ID,” Laura quips in the TV report. She also notes the “great service” the Gilbert police chief did by bringing awareness to so many people that birds sometime become intoxicated by consuming fermented berries. Laura also said in the Times story that drunken birds could be taken to “wildlife rehabilitation centers, where they would be given food and water to help sober up. A home remedy for a drunken bird that has been stunned, she said, is to place it in a box with holes poked in or a loosely fitting cover (and check on the patient every 10 to 15 minutes until it is ready to fly away).”

Of course, I hope that this isn’t exactly news to longtime readers of BirdWatching. Our “Since You Asked” columnist Julie Craves answered a reader’s question about this topic back in our December 2007 issue. A reader in Greenville, North Carolina, had found several dead Cedar Waxwings in front of an office without obvious injuries and noted that she “had seen the birds earlier in holly trees with berries.”

Here is Julie’s reply:

Often planted near buildings, your holly trees may be the clue. If the birds injured their brains or broke their necks flying into a window or the side of your building, they would not necessarily have appeared injured.

Two circumstances might explain the event you describe. Waxwings feed in flocks. They may have been startled and as a group flew into a window or against the building. Or the berries may have fermented, turning their sugar into alcohol. Believe it or not, the waxwings could have become intoxicated after eating the berries, collided with the building or a window, and died from their injuries. Biologist John Dennis described intoxication in birds in our August 1987 issue under the memorable title “If You Drink, Don’t Fly” (page 15).

Drunken birds can also die from exposure if they fail to find shelter in cold weather. In fact, waxwings (or robins, which also eat a lot of fruit at one time) may die of ethanol poisoning from ingesting fermented fruit.

A more unlikely explanation is that the trees were treated with a chemical that the birds ingested when they ate the fruit. Hollies, however, are rarely sprayed. They’re hardy plants, and the pests that sometimes infest them are of minor importance. To be sure, ask the landscaping service at your office what pesticides and herbicides they use. Then investigate the environmental impacts of the products at the Pesticide Action Network.

There you have it. BirdWatching, then known as Birder’s World, was on top of this year’s intoxicated-birds news not only in 2007 but also in 1987, the year we were founded. In fact, our 1987 article by John Dennis has been cited in several scientific studies about the effects of fruit fermentation. How do you like them (crab)apples?

Find more answers to readers’ questions from Julie Craves 

Prevent birds from hitting windows with these products

Update, October 10: Our friend Sharon Stiteler, the author who operates the site Birdchick.com, appeared in a segment about drunk birds on “The Ellen Show:”

And Sharon was featured during Jimmy Fallon’s monologue on “The Tonight Show:”

 

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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