Police in Gilbert, Minn., are warning residents about a group of youthful residents unable to handle their alcohol. They’ve been drifting around town looking disoriented, narrowly avoiding getting hit by cars.
But these aren’t teenagers getting drunk. Instead, it’s the local bird population.
“The Gilbert Police Department has received several reports of birds that appear to be ‘under the influence’ flying into windows, cars and acting confused,” Police Chief Ty Techar wrote in a statement Tuesday. An early frost meant that berries had fermented earlier than usual, he explained, and birds were eating them and getting drunk.
Incidents around town involving intoxicated birds appear to be more prevalent than in past years, Techar added, because many have not yet migrated south. “It appears that some birds are getting a little more ‘tipsy’ than normal,” he wrote. “Generally, younger birds’ livers cannot handle the toxins as efficiently as more mature birds.”
He concluded: “There is no need to call law enforcement about these birds as they should sober up within a short period of time.”
A number of Gilbert residents commented on the Facebook post and thanked the police department for explaining why the birds had been acting so strangely. One woman wrote that she had found three dead birds on her deck recently, while another described quickly slamming on her brakes when a bird flew directly into her windshield. “This explains why I have hit 7 birds with my car this week,” commented another.
“I was going to say something . . . but I thought I was crazy!!!” wrote one resident. “This has been happening to me!” She added, “I know this post is a joke . . . but seriously . . . 2 birds dove into my windshield both on the way to work and on the way home . . . I was wondering what was going on.”
Another commenter joked, “There goes the chance of any bird from Northern MN ever being on the Supreme Court.”
The police news release ended with a suggestion that residents of the small northern Minnesota town call if they see “Angry Birds laughing and giggling uncontrollably and appearing to be happy” or “Tweety acting as if 10 feet tall and getting into confrontations with cats.”
Jokes aside, however, birds really can get intoxicated by eating fermented berries. A group of California scientists who performed necropsies on several flocks of cedar waxwings that had collided with hard surfaces found that all of them had recently gorged on overripe berries. “Flying under the influence of ethanol” had led to the birds’ deaths, they concluded in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Ornithology.
Obviously, birds can’t exactly take a breathalyzer test. Matthew Dodder, a self-described “bird guy” with four decades of birding experience who leads classes in Palo Alto, Calif., told The Washington Post that the key giveaway to tell whether birds are drunk is their goofy behavior.
“They’ll be flying kind of erratically,” he said. “We typically see them flying lower than usual through traffic. They’re just careless and they’re not looking for cars or other obstacles.”
Certain bird species, such as robins, cedar waxwings and thrushes, are the most prone to drunken antics since they eat more berries than other species such as warblers and flycatchers that primarily eat insects. And as they prepare to fly south for winter, they may overindulge in an attempt to store up fat for the journey, Dodder said. The birds go from bush to bush trying to find more berries, their balance getting progressively worse.
“They just get sloppy and clumsy,” Dodder said. “They have actually fallen out of trees on occasion.”
In Portland, Ore., the Audubon Society operates what’s essentially a drunk tank for birds. “We get in birds into our Wildlife Care Center in the fall that are drunk on fermenting berries,” Bob Sallinger, the conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, wrote in an email. “Sometimes they are picked up after crashing into windows. Others are just found disoriented on the ground. We will hold them in captivity until they sober up and then set them free.”
The same thing happens in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where animal welfare officials will gently place intoxicated birds in small hamster cages until they’re ready to fly again a few hours later.
As humorous as it might sound, binging on berries can be deadly for birds. Portland has seen multiple incidents in the past decade where between 30 and 50 robins have suddenly turned up dead because of suspected alcohol poisoning. In 2011, police were called to investigate the suspicious deaths of 12 blackbirds at an elementary school in Britain, but a necropsy revealed the birds had not been the victims of foul play and instead may have just eaten too many fermented rowan berries.
Because intoxicated birds also have a tendency of smashing into things, the Audubon Society recommends putting decals on windows and other large reflective surfaces. And if you do come across a drunk bird that has survived a collision, Dodder recommends contacting an animal rescue or wildlife rehabilitation center.
“Sometimes, they just need a bit of time in a quiet setting to recover,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Gilbert, police are asking residents to call if they spot Woodstock pushing Snoopy off the doghouse for no apparent reason, Big Bird operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner, or the Roadrunner darting in and out of traffic on Main Street. Or, they suggested, any birds making a late-night run to Taco Bell.
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