Juvenile Blackbirds Drunk on Fermented Berries

It's sad, actually.

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Rowan tree berries [AndyRobertsPhotos/Flickr]

Birds might not be better than us after all. They have fancy hollow bones and the gift of graceful flight, but in the sense that we are all just floating around looking for fermented berries, there is existential parity.

The Veterinary Record of the British Medical Journal tells of a young bird in Cumbria, found outside of a primary school, that was visibly impaired, hobbling around. Staff at a wildlife rescue center described it as "unsteady on its feet ... [It] placed both wings on the ground to support itself and lent against the walls of the enclosure to maintain posture 'as though it was drunk.'"

Around it, twelve other blackbirds -- precisely half of four and twenty -- were found dead.

"Some of the birds had died from traumatic injury, possibly related to in-flight collisions secondary to intoxication."

Avian pathologists disassembled the birds to see what went wrong. Inside they found rowan berries that had "a faint odor of fermentation" -- enough to smell it while dissecting dead birds, at least. A biopsy of one of their livers had an alcohol level of 430 parts per million. Levels of 238 have been implicated in fatal ethanol intoxication in the past, in two poor wild cedar waxwings.

The surviving bird made a full recovery; back to normal by the next day.

But how many more birds are out there, with lower-but-not-incidental blood alcohol levels? Flying among us. Is it possible that they intentionally seek out fermented berries? Just one more -- I'm fine. Just one more. I'm totally okay to fly, just give me five minutes to waddle around first.

On a brighter note, you can raise awareness and pay tribute to the fallen birds by using this recipe to make your own rowan berry schnapps. Plan ahead, though, because it's not as simple as eating fermented berries you find on the ground. You have to steep it for one to four weeks, and then age it for another two months. Even if you start right now, I wouldn't plan a Fallen Birds Collation/Shiva until at least late February. By then it might be easier to smile about this, anyway.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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