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Birds Get Drunk And Sing Drunken Songs

Like humans, birds just don’t sing as well drunk as they do when sober

(Howard Pyle/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

As winter temperatures and darkest days conspire with the holidays to keep us indoors and imbibing, Americans are in the full swing of the drinking season. During this time, a few drink a lot—and the rest try to decipher the sometimes emotional, slurred ramblings of those who’ve had a bit too much. Turns out, we’re not the only species that struggles to vocalize when drunk. The songs of inebriated birds turn a bit slurred, quieter and more disorganized, researchers have found.

Christopher Olson of Oregon Health and Science University and his colleagues wanted to figure out how birds communication changes when they were drunk—not because they though it would be amusing, but because birds are a great model for the way humans learn and communicate with language. Since alcohol gives us a case of slurred speech, it might do the same to birds, they thought.

To find out, first they had to get some zebra finches drunk.

"We just showed up in the morning and mixed a little bit of juice with 6 percent alcohol, and put it in their water bottles and put it in the cages," Olson told NPR’s All Things Considered. "At first we were thinking that they wouldn't drink on their own because, you know, a lot of animals just won't touch the stuff. But they seem to tolerate it pretty well and be somewhat willing to consume it." (Out in the real world, birds do get themselves tipsy sometimes, by eating fermented berries.)

With blood-alcohol levels at about .05 to .08 percent—which in humans is enough to impair concentration and make you chatty—makes the birds "a bit less organized in their sound production," Olson says.

Some of the group’s earlier work suggests that alcohol might impair young birds' ability to learn new songs, according to New Scientist. But they don’t have conclusions yet on exactly how alcohol exerts these long-term effects. Or whether it encourages the birds to engage in the avian equivalent of drunk dialing.

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