When Songbirds Imbibe, Their Tunes Get Sloshed

In the name of science, some birds got drunk.
(Photo: YouTube)
Dec 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

While liquid courage might embolden a singer to take to the karaoke stage, the results of belting out a favorite tune after one-too-many cocktails can take an embarrassing turn. But humans aren’t the only ones whose vocal stylings suffer when intoxicated. Birds don’t sing so well when they’re drunk, either.

After sipping some spiked juice, zebra finches began to slur their songs, according to a study released last week by Oregon Health and Science University.

Why get birds drunk in the first place? Researchers study bird songs to help understand human speech patterns. Just as humans develop speech from listening to others talk, finches develop song in a similar fashion. Anyone who has struggled through the sloppy and incoherent chatter of a tipsy pal knows that alcohol changes how people talk. By testing out booze on birds, scientists can gain insight into the impact of alcohol on the brain mechanism that affects the ability to speak in humans.

There’s no breathalyzer for the striped bird to blow into, but a simple blood test confirmed that the birds reached an intoxication level just skimming the legal driving limit, between .05 and .08 percent. Birds metabolize alcohol differently from humans, so this was more than enough to garble their communication.

Most notably, the birds sing with "decreased amplitude and increased entropy,” the study reports. Meaning, they get a bit quieter, mess up the song structure, and basically don’t sound as clear and crisp.

The slurred results are far from surprising, but not every syllable suffers the same fate. Picking apart the different acoustic structures revealed that some sounds became sloppy and others remained intact, leading researchers to believe that alcohol impacts specific regions of the brain more than others.

This isn’t the last foray into buzzed birds for the sake of research, according to The Washington Post. Additional studies are in the works to determine whether alcohol impacts the birds’ ability to learn new songs.