Drunken Waxwings


Some of you may have heard the news about Bohemian waxwings in the Yukon Territory gorging themselves on fermented berries and getting more than a little tipsy.  To save the birds from dying from flying helter-skelter into windows and such, the animal health unit has been collecting the inebriated birds and letting them sober up in avian drunk tanks constructed from converted hamster cages.

Birds and other animals are occasionally known to consume a few too many fermented fruits.  Some of you may have observed this with robins or cedar waxwings in your area.  Moose are also known to occasionally get into some fermented apples, which can make things interesting in a hurry.  You may also recall a train derailment in Montana near Glacier National Park several years ago that spilled large quantities of grain.  The grain got wet, fermented, and attracted grizzly bears from far and wide.  A campground in the area was even forced to close because of the ornery disposition of the grizzlies after feasting on the fermented grain.

When we hear of these cases of inebriated animals we often question why the animals would do that.  It obviously puts them at a distinct disadvantage, and in the case of species such as the songbirds, renders them largely defenseless against potential predators.  But the plot does thicken!

Brightly colored and sugar-loaded fruit is the price some plants must pay to have their seeds dispersed.  Many persistent fleshy fruits such as mountain ash and apples that are high in sugar will likely also be colonized by wild yeasts that of course convert the sugars to ethanol.  But there is a strange twist here.  Not long ago, some scientists discovered that there is a correlation between the sugar content of the fruits and alcohol production.  They hypothesized that the smell of alcohol coming off these fruits is a signal to the animals that the fruits are ripe and high in sugar.  So when there is a lot of alcohol evaporating off the fruits is also the time when the sugar or energy concentration is highest.

For a variety of reasons such as the abundance of the fruits, and how much fermentation is occurring in each one, the animals cannot or do not generally consume quantities sufficient to result in inebriation.  But under some conditions where there is an abundance of fermented fruits, the animals will get a little more than they bargained for.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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