Friday, November 24, 2006

The Intoxicating Property of Juniper Berries

What looked to be a humdrum day has turned interesting, thanks to the presence of a vigorous juniper tree in my back yard.

My home has its share of windows to the rear, revealing a rather stunning view of a tidal river. Frequenting the many trees between the house and the river are birds of many species -- chickadees, titmice, sparrows (house, song, white throated, chipping), robins, bluejays, goldfinches, woodpeckers, waxwings, flickers -- you get the picture. I tend to several feeders between the house and the river. On routine occasion, I hear a "thump" against the window, the telltale sign that one of the little ones has failed to notice the glass. Sometimes the birds are just stunned, sometimes they meet an untimely demise.

A short time ago, we installed two six-foot sliding glass doors that exit to the deck which overlooks the river. Next to the deck is a hardy juniper tree. In the fall, the juniper's buds transform to hard, dull blue-gray berries. When this occurs, there is a week-long feeding frenzy in which certain birds (robins, flickers, woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees and waxwings) gorge themselves on these berries. I had always assumed simply that there was some natural attraction of tase or preference for the berry from these birds in particular, as most of the others showed no interest in them.

But the presence of the new sliders suggested something quite different.

This morning, as a flock of cedar waxwings gorged themselves in a frenzy, I detected a loud **THUMP**, and discovered a dead waxwing on the deck. Ouch! I went back to my chores. Another **THUMP**, another dead waxwing. I went to the window to observe.

This was no ordinary pre-migration food-storing operation here. This was a full-fledged orgy. And these birds were not acting normal. They were crazed with intoxication. They were manic. Frenetic. Out of their tiny little minds, which was apparent by the slowly growing pile of little corpses on my deck.

Might these juniper berries contain some sort of intoxicant, similar, perhaps to those used in some forms of GIN?? Some research was done.

My source informs us that "there is a considerable demand on the Continent for an aqueous extract of the berries called Roob, or Rob of Juniper, and the distilled oil is in this case a by-product, the berries being first crushed and macerated with water and then distilled with water and the residue in the still evaporated to a soft consistence. Much of the oil met with in commerce is obtained as a by-product in the manufacture of gin and similar products....

...In Sweden a beer is made that is regarded as a healthy drink. In hot countries the tree yields by incision a gum or varnish."

For humans, the berries are chiefly used as a "diuretic, stomachic, and carminative in indigestion, flatulence, and diseases of the kidney and bladder." Well, in this case, I'd rather be a bird -- for it is plain that the berries are inducing a euphoric state in their tiny little brains.

They're still at it now -- but I have placed a windmill-like object on the deck to deter wayward galivanting.

(In the picture above, how many waxwings can you count?)

Here's the Yellow-shafted Flicker enjoying his buzz.

Only a few minutes later, another group of waxwings eager to get their share of the elixir.

Makes me appreciate my Sapphire all the more, yes?

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