Dionysus and the Birds
Chris Maser

     Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and merriment. So? What can such a god have to do with birds? Well, as it turns out, the birds in central Oregon periodically celebrate the Greek God Dionysus with a mid-Winter orgy. An orgy, as generally thought of, involves frenzied singing, dancing, drinking, and sexual activity. But orgy also means an excessive indulgence in any activity.
     And this particular orgy reminded me of just how human-like animals sometime are and how animal-like humans sometimes are. To me, therefore, the notion that we're related through Cosmic Design is unquestionable. Further, we humans are no better or worse than any other species; we're just one among the many. But we may well be the only species that needs to trade its arrogance in on a healthy dose of humility.
     Somewhere between thirty and forty years ago, I was in the canyon along the Crooked River, not too distant from the town of Prineville in central Oregon. It was a clear, warm, sunny day in mid February. The ground was mottled with snow. A light breeze, blowing up the Crooked River, carried with it ever-so-faint a hint of Spring. As I glanced toward the river, I saw a muskrat climb out of the water and search the bank for something to eat. Somewhere along the river a Canadian goose called and another answered. Except for the little sucking noises of the water against the banks and the soft, background voices of the animals, it was peaceful and quiet.
     What a perfect day this was. I, in turn, was protected from the wind by juniper trees growing along the river and up the slopes to the massive rims of basalt that capped the canyon's walls. And just over the rim, across the river, I could see more junipers marching out of sight into the distance. As I stood breathing deeply of the cold, clean, Winter air, I glanced toward the rim of the canyon. My vision was suddenly arrested by an incredible commotion part way up the slope. Birds were plummeting out of the trees for no apparent reason. This was more than my curiosity could stand, so I found a place to cross the river and started climbing up the slope.

Basalt rim along the Crooked River of central Oregon.

     It was common in this country for birds of different species to band together in Winter, forming what's called a "feeding flock." As I climbed toward the rim, the commotion ceased to be only visual and became auditory as well. What a din! Mountain bluebirds, evening grosbeaks, cedar waxwings, and robins, with a few birds of other species thrown in, were creating incredible pandemonium. There were hundreds of them all seeming to squawk at once. In addition, I could see, even from a distance, that some of them were literally falling out of the trees and flopping around on the ground with their heads lolling this way and that, totally unable to fly. What on Earth was going on?
     I began walking a little faster, and as I got closer, it became obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the birds. I had seen birds act in a similar manner in years past when pesticides had been sprayed in an area. But who'd be spraying in this isolated canyon country at this time of year? What would they be spraying for anyhow, if they were spraying? It just didn't make sense.
     I was still some distance from the birds, and slightly out of breath from my rapid climb, when I became conscious of just how sweet the juniper berries were that I had been plucking off the trees and eating as I walk by. They had an unmistakable zing to them. "A zing," humm.... Then it dawned on me. A zing meant the berries were fermenting because they had been frozen and warmed again by the sun only to be frozen and warmed again.


Fresh juniper berries (left). Fermenting juniper berries on the ground (right).

     I suddenly understood, and all I could do was laugh until my stomach and sides ached. The birds were drunk--very drunk! In fact, they were trying to fly under the influence of an intoxicating substance.
     The birds were dangerous mostly to themselves, however. They simply crashed into things, and once they were down, they couldn't get up again. No matter what they did, they couldn't get airborne. And there are hundreds of them all in various stages of inebriation.
     They were indeed honoring the fermenting berries with an undeniable Dionysian excess--an orgy that knew no bounds. The orgy may have been unintentional, but as I surveyed the vast crop of juniper berries, it was clear the birds could stay drunk for days, even weeks.
     Are these orgies accidents or by choice? If animals find the means of intoxication, do they remember it and seek it again? I wonder, because I have noticed in my travels that virtually every human culture seems to have a penchant for intoxication--for whatever reason--and seems to have devised the means of achieving it.
     If the birds suffered from hangovers (as it seemed they might, considering what my old dog, Buck, went through when he lick out all the champagne glasses on a New Year's eve) there would have been a bunch of miserable birds in the days ahead. As for me, who had experienced numerous Dionysian days myself, I was content to watch one of the most amazing spectacles of animal behavior I'd ever seen. It was astonishingly human!

© chris maser 2003. All rights reserved.

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