The last time I saw my friend Ida, she had quite a story to tell. “You won’t believe this, but I just saw cedar waxwings getting drunk on the berries in my daughter’s mountain ash tree. The birds were just falling out of the tree and lying on the ground. They’d lift a wing and try to fly but couldn’t do it. There were at least 20 of them — all roaring drunk.”
After I finished laughing, I went to the National Audubon Society’s website and learned that such occurrences are not unusual. Mountain ash trees bear brilliant red-orange berries that attract lots of birds, cedar waxwings especially, and if the fruits have begun to ferment on the tree, the effect can be intoxicating.
The American and European species of mountain ash are primarily northern trees. (From Virginia to Georgia, they are found only in high mountain locations.) But birds can get a similar kick from many warm-climate trees and shrubs, such as pyracantha and chinaberry.
A journalist from my childhood named Colvin Farley, who wrote a column called “Nature Notes” for the small-town Connecticut newspaper the Sherman Sentinel, observed in 1948 what he called “cedarbirds” in chokecherry trees: “In their tipsy condition, with feathers ruffled and crests askew, they have been known to bob about on the branches, tumble on the ground and go through all the familiar performances of humans in a similar state, except perhaps for the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ ”
I started asking other friends whether they’d had similar sightings, and I was amazed at how many had. One remembered mulberry trees in Massachusetts, where not only birds but also squirrels joined the revelry. Another recalled caterwauling blue jays, high on crab apples. Yes, jays are raucous anyway, but this was beyond the usual din.
Another person had seen robins on a rampage in a cherry orchard, the ground littered with birds and fallen fruit. “It smelled like very bad wine.”
The time of year of these binges varies. Sometimes it’s fall, as the fruit matures too much and ferments. But it could be winter, when cold concentrates a fruit’s sugar, which then breaks down and produces alcohol. A friend in Vermont once came upon a tree bearing little, hard-frozen apples from which she could suck the unfrozen alcohol that remained. It was like a potent apple brandy, nature’s own applejack.
Another friend, who lives in Austria, describes a clear spirit called Vogelbeerbaum schnapps, made from the European mountain ash, or rowan . I wonder whether this was the type consumed in the widely reported story of the brown owl of Pforzheim, Germany. The bird was found sitting by the road, sleepy-eyed, next to two small bottles of schnapps, until it was rescued by the Pforzheim police.
A story like that, of course, is not funny. Although animal intoxication is often a naturally occurring event, it can put the imbiber at risk. The owl was lucky not to have been hit by a car. Impaired birds sometimes fly into walls and windows, and they are vulnerable to predators, including house cats.
If you find drunk birds in your yard that seem to need help, give them water to drink — to rehydrate them — and put them in a safe place to sober up. A cage is ideal, but you can also use a cardboard box, perforated to let in air.
I wonder about my chickens, which often get out of their pen and wander here and there, eating anything that looks good to them. And because I’ve tried to make our yard bird-friendly by planting shrubs with a succession of berries, maybe I should keep an eye out for silly behavior. But, honestly, our chickens’ normal behavior is so wonderfully silly, I’m not sure I would know.