Drunken parrot season begins in Darwin

By AAP and AG Staff 27 September 2011
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The season for drunken lorikeets has begun in the Northern Territory, but no one knows what causes it.

WHEN THE WET SEASON approaches in Darwin and the mercury starts to climb, locals often turn to drink. But for wildlife carers it’s the drunken birds – red-collared lorikeets to be exact – that are causing problems.

Carers in Darwin say they are bracing for hundreds of sick birds, as the annual ‘drunk lorikeet’ season rolls around. It happens each year towards the end of the dry season and the beginning of the wet in October-November.

Experts say they are not sure if the lorikeets are actually drunk, but they do have tell-tale symptoms. “They exhibit odd behaviour like falling over or difficulty flying [and] they keep running into things,” says Darwin vet Dr Stephen Cutter from The Ark Animal Hospital.

Drunk parrots lose inhibitions

The red-collared lorikeet (Trichoglossus rubritorquis) is a type of parrot and a sub-species of the rainbow lorikeet, and it is found across northern Australia. With bright blue heads, green wings and distinctive red markings on their neck, the birds are hard to miss.

The apparent drunkenness makes them lose their fear of people and act friendlier than normal. Thousands of the lorikeets often gather at a local market and it is not uncommon for many to be left floundering, says Stephen. It’s not known what is wrong with the birds, but it’s possibly the effect of a virus combined with ingesting alcohol from fermenting fruit.

The affects usually last for a couple of days, far longer than you would expect if it was just alcohol-related, Stephen says. Additional symptoms which suggest that the condition is more than than simply drunkenness include respiratory problems and a discharge from bird’s nostrils, mouth and eyes.

Stephen says he has occasionally seen ‘drunken’ honeyeaters too.

Serious hangover for drunken birds

Mignon McHendrie, the president of Wildcare Inc NT, a non-profit wildlife care and rescue organisation based in Darwin, says that in the past the phenomenon has been treated as a joke. But the disease – which sees the birds falling from trees and staggering around streets – is far more dangerous to the birds than a hangover is to people. About half of the birds brought into her shelter with the symptoms will die. And ‘drunken’ birds are becoming more common, with a few hundred brought in for help last year. “Ten years ago we only had two or three,” she says.

The season for affected birds seems to be starting later than normal this year. Stephen’s practice normally starts seeing the birds from June through to August, but the first birds for this season have only just started appearing.

ANIMAL VIDEO: Report about drunken parrots in the Northern Territory