A boiled owl? Maybe some really are


THAT OLD EXPRESSION may not be as far out as we may have thought. “Drunk as a boiled Owl” may have really been referring to a tipsy nocturnal bird of prey. Animals can act as stupid as some of us humans do, according to the current issue of International Wildlife Magazine. Animals, too, sometimes indulge in the fruit of the vine after it’s over-ripe.

TAKE THE CASE of hundreds of waxwings, which, explains the National Wildlife Federation’s bimonthly publication, fell victim to the intoxicating effects of fermented rowanberries in Sweden. While motorists were trying to cope with a stretch of icy roadway one winter day, some of the drunken birds began to weave back and forth along the shoulder, while others dive-bombed right into windshields. Many of the birds, rendered totally helpless, just sat in the middle of the road.

RIPE PRYACANTHA berries have also been responsible for many a bird’s drunkenness. Robins in Florida sometimes get so tipsy on ripe pyracantha berries that they bump into each other or fly into telephone wires and windows. And in southern Nevada, hordes of migrating robins were seen staggering around after lingering too long at the pyracantha bush. A few days later, sobered up, they continued on their way south.

“DRUNK” may not be the correct term for birds in this condition. Ornithologist Stanley Temple of the University of Wisconsin explains that when a bird or mammal gets intoxicated, the cause is usually not alcohol but some other toxic substance.

That poison, Temple speculates, may be a particular plant’s way of discouraging wildlife from eating it. Other naturalists point out that wild fruits can indeed ferment, producing in animals the kinds of reactions normally associated with human intoxication. The big difference between inebriated people and animals is that humans may set out deliberately to addle their senses, while animals are usually taken unawares.

INSECTS ARE also susceptible, says International Wildlife. This weakness is recognized by butterfly hunters who use a devilish concoction of squashed bananas and sugar to tranquilize their quarry. Some insects are attracted to the sweetness tree sap. When the sap ferments, wasps and butterflies are suddenly unable to fly. Bees, too, have been observed veering wildly after partaking of overripe nectar.

IN ADDITION to man, the elephant is a mammal with a long tradition in inebriation. This is due to the elephant’s habit of feeding on various fermented fruits and then engaging in noisy drunken brawls. In Kruger National Park in South Africa’s Transvaal, they eat the pale yellow, plum-sized fruits of the marula tree. These delicacies have a sweetish acid taste which seems to have a special appeal and are said to ferment in the elephant’s stomachs.

PROBABLY the only animal ever grateful for having one too many is the pink pigeon of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. This rare bird eats a plant that stupefies him – but also produces cyanide when exposed to water in the pigeon’s system. The same plant contains another chemical which accumulates in the birds body, making its flesh poisonous to people. While other tastier pigeons were consumed to extinction, the tipsy pink variety was identified as a species to be left alone. “Thus,” says International Wildlife, “the pink pigeon’s renown as a drunk may be responsible for its survival as a species.”

I’VE ALWAYS HEARD, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.” Well, the wind of intoxication is one of the illest winds I know. May it someday be calmed.

But, don’t hold your breath.