A grouse sits in a tree in the Steamboat II subdivision west of downtown Steamboat Springs on Friday morning. The birds moved into the area a few weeks ago and have been seen in Steamboat II and Heritage Park across U.S. Highway 40.

Photo by John F. Russell

A grouse sits in a tree in the Steamboat II subdivision west of downtown Steamboat Springs on Friday morning. The birds moved into the area a few weeks ago and have been seen in Steamboat II and Heritage Park across U.S. Highway 40.

Tom Ross: Are big birdies imbibing?

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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A grouse sits in a tree in the Steamboat II subdivision west of downtown Steamboat Springs on Friday morning.

Cedar waxwings do it. Robins do it, too. Why not grouse?

Because bees buzz, but birds are not supposed to get buzzed. That’s why.

Steamboat Pilot & Today reader John Rezzonico was kind enough this week to bring our attention to an unusual congregation of grouse in West Steamboat residential neighborhoods. He sent us photographs of large birds he identified as sharp-tailed grouse flying by his house in Heritage Park, nestling in the snow and, significantly, perched in crabapple trees hung with fruit.

“The west of town communities have been abuzz this winter over the strange turkeys or giant chicken birds that seem to have made our neighborhood their winter roost,” Rezzonico wrote in an e-mail.

“It is not odd to see 100 of these guys roosting in trees and on our roofs.”

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I suspect these bingeing birdies are getting tipsy on fermented crabapples.

Rezzonico said he has lived in Heritage Park for nine years and has never seen a single grouse there before this winter.

His experience with the grouse reminds me of the strange encounters I had with robins at this time last year.

In January 2009, long after they should have migrated south for the winter, I saw dozens and dozens of robins feasting on the remains of an abundant crop of serviceberries and chokecherries produced by the heavy rains of the preceding summer. I found myself searching for an explanation for this phenomenon and recalled watching large bands of grosbeaks and waxwings taking turns feasting on crabapples in my yard and then flying off to recover in a nearby willow.

I can’t say the birds in my yard were flying upside down or anything, but there was something odd about their behavior. And they were chattering among themselves at high volume.

After an exhaustive search of the Internet on Friday, I reached the conclusion that wintering birds look at berry bushes and crabapple trees as inviting honky-tonks serving the equivalent of margaritas and nachos. Yep, I think there’s a real possibility these grouse are becoming mildly intoxicated on fermented fruit.

I should stop right here and point out that my opinions are not necessarily shared by Rezzonico. Based on the quality of his photographs, he is a man who knows his way around a 300 mm lens. Look for Rezzonico’s images on page 2 of the Monday edition of Steamboat Today.

That said, The Associated Press reported in 2005 that animal rescue volunteers in Columbia, S.C., had to come to the aid of hundreds of cedar waxwings that stopped in the midst of a February migration to get bombed on fermented holly berries.

The aftermath of this ill-advised bender was tragic. Scores of inebriated waxwings died after flying into the windows of nearby office buildings.

The Web site www.learner.org contains an account of robins getting schnockered on berries. The Web site explain that bacteria and yeast feed on the sugars contained in the fruit. A byproduct of their digestive process is the production of alcohol. That’s the process of fermentation.

“When birds are intoxicated, they have trouble perching, hopping and walking and even controlling their flight,” www.learner.org observed.

I conned one of my colleagues at the newspaper into asking Sgt. Rich Brown, of the Steamboat Springs Police Department, on Friday if his patrol officers have ever made a flying under the influence arrest or conducted a tree-side sobriety test.

Brown told reporter Zach Fridell that he could not recall either event ever happening but that if police encountered a bird weaving in traffic, they would probably take it to detox.

I presume they would have to succeed in pulling the bird over.

If you need more proof that birdies imbibe, consider a report in The Ithacan by Evan Heckler, of Ithaca College.

In fall and spring at Ithaca College near upstate New York, Heckler wrote, birds die after crashing violently into campus buildings. The college superintendent of grounds blamed it on fermented fruit.

“Birds eat them and get drunk and fly into the windows,” he said flatly.

Heckler found a biologist who confirmed the hypothesis.

“Birds do get drunk,” assistant professor John Confer told Heckler. But he hastened to add that if cedar waxwings drink in moderation, it’s not all bad.

If you’re out and about in West Steamboat this weekend and you see a disoriented grouse, you might offer it a ride home.

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