On the Problem of Ethanol Abuse in Waxwings

 

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I recently worked with an experienced chronic alcoholic and was reminded that the addictive personality is firmly entrenched in a sea of rationalizations and infantile gratifications.  I am aware that there are biogenetic factors operating. This is not an excuse of course but a partial theory. There appears to be a hard wiring defect in the septal region of the brain, the pleasure centre leading to a bottomless pit  of mindless euphoria seeking….

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Humans have been consuming mind altering substances since our ancestors came  out of the trees in Tanzania. Well in truth more like 10,000BC which dates the first brews. A  fermented drink made of grapes, hawthorn berries, honey, and rice was being produced in 7000–6650 BC in China. Apparently wine’s first appearance dates from 6000 BC in Georgia. (Not Atlanta).

The hard wiring biology makes me wonder about “lesser” life forms. My first encounter  with avian intoxication was on a forest hike where I found some Cedar Waxwings, a fine specimen of mixed forest bird. I was already aware that they could get wasted on fermented berries, leading to erratic flight patterns and falling to the ground inebriated….

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Recently several birds became so intoxicated that they had to be admitted to the animal healthcare unit in Yukon, Canada to sober up;  avian rehab.

My veterinary colleague advises that the goal of treatment is to nurse the critter and prevent anxiety until the period of intoxication is complete.  Noise and other sensory stimuli should be minimized.  Some require sedatives or injections of fluids. Finding a vein on a bird must prove challenging.

What is truly interesting is that Waxwings pass the berries to each other. That is to say that they cooperate. Not bad for a bird,  to engage in altruistic acts. Humans of course do the same. They buy each other round after round if the mood becomes convivial. Be it a bar or a tree branch, people or Waxwings are by nature socialists. Of course I could be anthropomorphizing.

What is not clear is whether animals get drunk deliberately or by chance . According to an account given to the BBC, the Honeybourne Railway Club was totally trashed by a squirrel who may have been totally trashed himself. The club secretary reported finding the place totally dismantled with  tipped over glasses, then seeing a squirrel — one who he believed had gotten into the beer and had a few too many — stagger out from behind some potato chips. But it is questionable  as to whether or not  he sought out the brews deliberately.

Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man that monkeys have a “strong taste” for “spirituous liquors” and beer. Apparently 1 in 5 Vervet monkeys prefer drinking alcohol over water. Elephants gorge on Marula fruit for a free buzz. Pentailed Treeshrews enjoy a nightly cocktail of palm nectar, going back repeatedly for seconds or thirds.

Physical addiction is possible in animals  but a psychological parallel is less clear as the Vervet primate  is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The animals conduct is simply controlled by the action of alcohol. Though it appears that craving may be relevant.

Back to my patient, he struggled with sobriety because the hedonistic urge to drink, gamble and date strippers, in an effort to fill that void in his brain was often stronger than the controls of the 12 step rehab philosophy. AA tries to engage the frontal lobe -the “higher power”-to put clamps on that overactive pleasure centre.

As for Waxwings I was convinced that they were just regular dudes bonding and sharing a few. And that reality  is for birds that can’t handle their berries.

Waxwing Altruism

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