First thing Monday morning, I looked out at the birds in the back of my yard. With my very first peek, I had four sparrows in my binoculars—and they were four different species: White-throated, White-crowned, and Harris’s Sparrows, and junco. While I was still looking at them, another species flitted through—a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was hearing lots of Blue Jays, and when I scanned, counted 23 jays in a single tray feeder just barely big enough to accommodate the crowd. There were plenty of other jays throughout the yard—more than 60 total—feeding in other feeders and on the ground, drinking from the birdbaths, and squawking from the trees. The total number of sparrows in the collection in the back of the yard was over 50. At least a dozen Yellow-rumps were about—some in my suet feeders but most on the ground and in the shrubs making their dry chips. Lovely calls drew my eyes skyward to a line of 9 Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked my apple tree while robins and Swainson’s Thrushes fed in several berry shrubs in back. I could also hear my backyard Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a flicker, to say nothing of my chickadees.
Right now, at the peak of songbird migration, my backyard is a happenin’ place, but what we call a migration fallout is way more widespread than just on Peabody Street. People have been calling and messaging me for days about all the birds hitting windows and getting hit by cars.
On Tuesday, Police Chief Ty Techar of the Gilbert Minnesota police department issued a press release saying that the department had received calls about "birds that appear to be under the influence, flying into windows, cars and acting confused." I got a call from Peter Passi of the Duluth News Tribune asking about it. The Gilbert police were attributing the situation to intoxicated birds eating fermented berries, but they didn’t specify what species were involved in these problems. Robins, other thrushes, and waxwings are usually the birds found intoxicated. But that’s definitely not the issue with birds people have been calling me about, as I told Peter Passi. Yellow-rumped Warbler migration always peaks right at the end of September into early October, and this year they’re unusually abundant. I picked one up at a Subway restaurant in Duluth this weekend—it was stunned, and at first in no condition to walk or fly in a straight line, but it would have been perfectly capable of passing a breathalyzer test.
The Duluth News Tribune article took one quote from me but ignored everything else I said:
Laura Erickson, a Duluth birding expert, said waxwings, robins and thrushes often are some of the most prone to become tipsy, as they commonly feed on such berries.
"Birds actually do get literally intoxicated when they eat berries that have started fermenting, and that does lead to drunken behavior," she said.The article focused entirely on the drunken birds angle, starting with a funny color cartoon of a drunken bird with a sign, “Welcome to Gilbert,” and ending with Police Chief Techar joking that people didn’t need to report intoxicated birds to the police, but should call if they saw Heckle and Jeckle walking around being boisterous or playing practical jokes, Woodstock pushing Snoopy off the doghouse for no apparent reason, or a string of other funny situations.
I had a sinking feeling that drunken birds was going to be the only takeaway message even though I’ve yet to hear any actual evidence that fermented berries are even involved in this situation. Sure enough, I got a call from a Twin Cities TV news station reporter, and all he wanted to hear about was birds getting drunk. He wanted someone on the air to talk about it, and he asked her where he could get some footage of waxwings getting drunk. Then Minnesota Public Radio picked up the News Tribune’s story. On their Facebook article, they showed a dead hummingbird with a quote from me about birds eating fermented berries, implying that I was saying that’s what happened to the hummingbird. It absolutely is not!
I guess with all the talk on the news about high school and college drinking parties, it’s to be expected that birds acting a little out of the ordinary would be accused of being drunk. But even though the birds in Gilbert may indeed be intoxicated by fermented berries, I’m doubtful unless someone can confirm their species. And even then, when berry trees are close to windows or roads, birds feeding in them can be startled by a hawk and crash without even being intoxicated. But the first step in knowing for certain what’s going on isn’t to test their blood-alcohol levels, just check their ID.
Meanwhile, birds hit windows in unacceptable numbers every year during migration. But I’m afraid that important message is being lost in the fun people are having suddenly talking about drunken birds. It’s a diversion from national news, and people seem to have already forgotten one important news story. I expect there have been hundreds of birds killed at the Vikings Stadium this week. Even those of us who haven’t blacked out from too much beer since the stadium was in the news have forgotten what a hazard it is and will continue to be every single spring and fall. Migrating birds deserve safe passage through our state, but for a while now, the ones dying due to the hazards we put out there will be the butt of jokes.
You can help your backyard birds by making your windows safe. Here are some suggestions.