Planet Earth

A New Source of Terror: Drunk Birds

Avian flu or flying under the influence?

By Amos KenigsbergFeb 8, 2006 6:00 AM


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Call off the alarm, Austria. Those sweet songbirds that recently died in Vienna did not perish from avian flu. No, they fell victim to a less publicized but ever-present threat to birds: drinking and flying.

When about 40 birds mysteriously fell from the sky in the charming city where Mozart composed, locals worried that avian flu, which has struck as far west as Turkey, had continued its spread into Austria. But when the national veterinary authority took a careful look at the ex-birds, they found broken necks, scarred livers, and no flu virus.

Connecting facts like a real-life episode of CSI, the authority realized that the birds had most likely eaten rotting berries, which produced alcohol as they fermented and thereby intoxicated the avians. (The birds' livers showed so much damage from drinking that "they looked like they were chronic alcoholics", said Sonja Wehsely, a spokesperson for Vienna's veterinary authority.) The tipsy bootlegger birds then flew into windows and broke their necks, becoming just another statistic in an avian public-service warning against drunk flying.

As yet, Vienna's veterinary authority has not released any word on whether the menace to Austrian airspace will continue. Seeing as the recent victims looked like frequent users, one might wonder if there are many more buzzed birds out there setting themselves up for a crash.

While thinking about bizarre animal deaths in German-speaking cities, Discover readers might recall #99 from the list of Top 100 Science Stories of 2005: Pop Went The Toads. That story detailed why over 1,000 amphibians had sullied the normally staid and serene streets of Hamburg by spontaneously exploding. It turned out that crows had pecked out the toads' livers, and when the toads tried to puff themselves up to look tough, they popped, sending froggy bits up to three feet away.

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