How Birds Get Berry, Berry Drunk


A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), who may or may not have had one too many berries. Conrad Tan/Getty Images

In early October 2018, the little town of Gilbert, Minnesota made the national news. There was no shocking local government scandal or gruesome murder, but a group of Gilbert residents went haywire, and the police chief issued a statement about it: Watch out for birds, was the gist of it. They're drunk and out of control.

This happens from time to time. Each year, migrating or overwintering birds — often cedar waxwings, blackbirds or thrushes like robins and jays — run out of insects to eat and turn to berry-making trees like juniper, rowan or holly for food. Berries, as we know, are full of sugar — it's what enables fruit to be turned into alcohol through the process of fermentation. Berries are a great food source for birds when they're nice and ripe, but after they begin to ferment, they turn into little sacks of wine. Bird livers can't keep up with all the alcohol and it shows: They fly into windows, flop around on the ground, and they're not afraid of approaching predators or humans.

Although the citizens of Gilbert noticed birds acting differently, and though many jokes were made at their expense — Police Chief Ty Techar warned people to watch out for "Bigbird operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner" and "Tweety acting as if 10 feet tall and getting into confrontations with cats" — bird experts have weighed in. They suggested it's probably too early in the season for berries to be fermenting to the point that so many birds could be that hammered. Instead, all Gilbert's bird action could have been due to large numbers of migrating birds flying through the area.

And although the idea of drunk birds might be funny, it can also be fatal. Alcohol poisoning is possible, as is death by bad decision-making: Drunk birds can die smacking into windows or cars, getting scooped up by hawks, flopping into traffic, etc. So, if you see a bird you think might be inebriated, you can help: Pick it up gently with a towel and stick it in a dark, quiet box until it's acting normal again. You would do the same for a friend!


More to Explore