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Nature: Birds and Fermented Berries

January 11, 2019 - 10:48 pm

You may see bright berries left hanging onto branches in the winter cold this time of year.  These berries are a source of food and a stiff drink for our resident birds.  Listen in for more on the antics of birds this season as you join KBCS’s Yuko Kodama and Ed Dominguez, Lead Naturalist of the Seward Park Audubon Center,  on a nature walk through the Union Bay Natural Area near Seattle’s University District.

Producers: Yuko Kodama and Jesse Callahan

Photo by Anna Osanna

91.3 KBCS music and ideas listener supported radio from Bellevue College.

Audubon Center Lead Naturalist Ed Dominguez, introduces us to some birds who know where to go out for a drink.

Oh, tell me about these berries. Oh, these are the kind of berries that babies would be so attracted to.

Right, aren’t they a beautiful bright red? This is called highbush cranberry. It’s not really a cranberry family member, it’s real name is Viburnum Edule, so it’s a viburnum. But because the berries are bright red and look like, kind of like cranberries, except that they’re anywhere from 5 to 12 feet off the ground is a very important food for birds, and in the background, we’re hearing all kinds of Robins twittering and chattering as well as other birds, and they’re feeding on these berries. Because right now there’s not a lot of natural foods out there. Insects really haven’t started to hatch yet because it’s early January, and these berries represent a very sugar rich source of food for birds, and an interesting sidelight is that as the weather gets colder and the berries age, the sugars in the berries ferment, and so as the birds eat them, they literally become intoxicated. They’re eating fermented berries, and they can start to exhibit some really funny drunken behaviors. Part of it is all the chattering we hear, they get very loquacious as they start eating too many berries and they’re chatting with one another. You’ll see Robins falling out of the trees and shrubs. If they’re on the ground, they might be walking and fall over. They can exhibit some very aggressive behaviors, their natural inhibitions get lowered was, as anyone who drinks too much, and they’ll be running crows and other birds much larger than themselves out of the areas, they’re emboldened by their inebriated state, so the highbush cranberry, beautiful red berries, and a good important food source for birds but also a intoxicant.

The highbush cranberry is like the tavern.

It’s like the tavern along with any other berries that are on plants, right now like the Pacific Madrone tree, one of our native trees that has red berries, the sugars all start to ferment as they age, and with the cold weather, and they become not only sources of food but sources of altered states of consciousness for our birds!

That was the Audubon Center Lead Naturalist Ed Dominguez with 91.3’s Yuko Kodama at the Union Bay Natural Area, near Seattle’s University District.