Yukon putting birds — inebriated on fermented berries — in little drunk tanks
Vitaly Ilyasov/FotoliaA Bohemian Waxwing knocks back a berry. Recent drunken flying accidents have sent four birds to the Animal Health Unit headquarters in Whitehorse for rehabilitation.
Beset by a seasonal rash of birds inebriated on fermented berries, Yukon wildlife officials have readied a series of miniature drunk tanks to help the erratic avians sober up.
“There’s a couple big flocks, and you can see them flying a bit erratically, trying to avoid things,” said Meghan Larivee with the territory’s Animal Health Unit.
Already, drunken flying accidents have sent four birds to the Whitehorse headquarters for rehabilitation in a series of specially equipped “holding tanks”: Small cages with water and bedding, that are kept quiet and dark “so that [the waxwings] can have a good recovery.” One of the birds, notably, arrived still smeared with the residue of alcoholic berries.
“We expect there will be more,” said Ms. Larivee.
The usual victim is the Bohemian waxwing, a Yukon songbird that feeds almost exclusively on fruit. Each winter, the bird gorges on incredible quantities of berries, many of which have rotted to the point of becoming mildly alcoholic.
“There are many, many records of waxwings drinking themselves almost to death by eating more fermenting berries than their bodies can handle,” said Derek Matthews, chair of the Vancouver Avian Research Centre.
“They either die from ruptured livers, or by flying quasi-drunkenly into plate-glass windows.”
Government of YukonYukon avian drunk tanks. When intoxicated birds are brought to the territory’s Animal Health Unit, they are kept isolated in these units until they are sober enough to return to the wild.
These yearly alcohol binges are nothing new to North America’s waxwings.
In fact, after thousands of years of eating an ethanol-heavy diet, evolution long-ago killed off all the lightweights in the waxwing population, resulting in a bird with an unusually robust ability to hold its liquor.
Waxwings are renowned extremely large livers and lightning-fast digestive systems to circulate alcohol through their body before it has a chance to poison them.
“They actually metabolize alcohol better than humans,” said Mr. Matthews.
Drunken behaviour is particularly well-documented among the Bohemian’s waxwing’s southerly cousin, the cedar waxwing.
Eight years ago, U.S. ornithologists noticed unusually high numbers of cedar waxwings showing up dead in the Los Angeles area.
Fearing a new kind of avian flu, researchers analyzed the birds at a California lab, where they found that the birds had all been binging on rotting berries from the Brazilian pepper tree.
The cause of death was deemed to be ruptured livers or “flying under the influence of ethanol.”
‘They either die from ruptured livers, or by flying quasi-drunkenly into plate-glass windows’
A few years later, avian researchers documented a flock of 50 cedar waxwings being killed by alcohol poisoning in Texas after the birds took in a particularly gluttonous helping of fermented holly shrub berries.
In the Yukon — which also happens to host Canada’s highest rate of human alcohol consumption — the waxwing’s fruit of choice are orange berries from the Mountain Ash tree, a popular ornamental shrub.
Ms. Larivee said Yukon wildlife officials are advising homeowners near Mountain Ash trees to put decals of hawks on their windows in order to ward off collisions from inebriated waxwings.
“It does help a bit,” she said.
Accounts of inadvertent drunkenness are not uncommon in the animal kingdom, and in cases of larger creatures, the results can be deadly for humans.
In 2010, a herd of elephants in Eastern Indian drank a village’s store of rice wine, and proceeded to embark on an inebriated rampage that killed three people and destroyed 60 homes.
In Sweden, an annual autumn phenomenon of moose gorging on fermented apples has resulted in numerous accounts of the animals charging recklessly into urban centres.
“They can be really dangerous. They become fearless. Instead of backing away when a person approaches, they move toward you,” said a police spokesman after a 2013 incident in which a group of five inebriated moose prevented a Stockholm-area resident from returning home.