By Greg Schwem
The next time you are traveling through Oregon and spot a zebra finch, or what non-ornithologists call “a bird,” it’s best to stay away.
The creature may be drunk.
In their attempts to understand the relationship between alcohol and speech impairment, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University recently chose to ply the birds with booze and then record their sounds. Finches were chosen because, according to the study, they “learn song in a manner analogous to how humans learn speech.”
I’m not sure why further study on this topic is needed; we need only ask celebrities to explain how alcohol affects one’s ability to form words. Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Justin Bieber, please step up to the bar. Still, I read on, despite breaking my cardinal rule to never read medical studies. Doing so requires one to digest sentences such as, “nucleus RA occupies a position in this pathway analogous to the layer 5 motor neurons within the oral-motor and laryngeal representation areas of the human primary motor cortex, which project onto brainstem laryngeal centers for vocal control.”
I interpreted that to mean I shouldn’t summon security the next time I’m sitting next to an angry fan screaming profanities at a professional sporting event. Instead, I should politely ask him to tone down his brainstem laryngeal center. And then call security.
The birds’ initiation into the world of intoxication began slowly; finches were first fed water, then water mixed with white grape juice and finally white grape juice spiked with alcohol. Then the real fun began as the finches entered a studio complete with professional microphones, preamplifiers and recording software. “Singing was recorded and processed with the settings for zebra finch song,” researchers wrote.
Would somebody please tell me the proper zebra finch song settings? This was not explained despite an exhaustive description of what to listen for when zebra finches begin singing. There was also no indication of exactly what songs they were singing.
Researchers quickly noticed that alcohol exposure in finches did not affect their general behavior. They were able to perch, stand upright and even fly inside their cages despite being buzzed. It also did not affect their willingness or motivation to sing. So despite the similarities between finches and humans, differences abounded as well. If alcohol did not affect our willingness to sing, karaoke bars would have ceased operation years ago.
However, male finches did noticeably perk up when females were introduced into adjacent cages. The males also suddenly decided they were great dancers. Okay, I made that last one up.
The recording sessions lasted several hours because, as the study points out, “finches clear alcohol quite slowly once high blood ethanol concentration (BEC) levels are achieved.”
Also, there was plenty of alcohol to clear because, as researchers sheepishly admitted, the BEC levels could be classified as “risky” drinking with one bird even approaching binge drinking status. After reading the entire study, I reached two conclusions:
I need a zebra finch to clear out all the strange alcohol in my liquor cabinet. How did I end up with a bottle of Crème de Menthe?
I will never look at white grape juice the same way again.
But I also believe further research is needed before concluding people and finches are alike when it comes to alcohol consumption. Oregon researchers, please answer the following questions:
Are male finches inclined to pick fights with bigger, stronger finches after accusing them of looking at their female companions?
Do female finches warble on incessantly about relationships and glumly sing how they may never find “The Right Mr. Finch?”
Do finch couples break up and reconcile repeatedly while drinking?
(Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and author of “Text Me If You’re Breathing: Observations, Frustrations and Life Lessons From a Low-Tech Dad,” available at http://bit.ly/gregschwem. Visit Greg on the web at www.gregschwem.com.) (c) 2015 GREG SCHWEM. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC