As midnight nears on New Year’s Eve, and you accept your third glass of prosecco, think of the zebra finch. The prolific creatures, common as pet songbirds around the world, are also popular among researchers because they are highly adaptable and very easy to breed. And as with most favored lab animals—think fruit flies, monkeys, and mice—scientists finally resolved this year to get them drunk.
In this case, scientists at Oregon Health & Science University decided to booze the birds to learn more about alcohol’s effects on speech. Zebra finches are very social and learn complex songs, and they have been studied as a model for how humans develop language. Past studies have found that finches glean song information from their relations much in the same way people do.
For the experiment, researchers offered zebra finches white grape juice with about 6 percent alcohol concentration, similar to many commercial beers. The birds “readily” accepted the liquid, according to the study in PLOS ONE. Once they reached a certain level of inebriation—about .05 to .08 percent blood-alcohol concentration—there were noticeable changes to their normal singing pattern. The birds' croons became lower and messier. The slurred songs can be heard in the slightly stilted video below; the recordings begin around 1:07:
Researchers wrote that although the birds seemed to avoid some of the more conspicuous signs of human drunkenness, like unsteadiness and general lack of composure, their off-kilter songs offered some clues about how we react to alcohol. As in any group of humans, the finches didn’t all have the same buzz—their acoustic structures vary naturally, and so did their boozy songs.
On New Year's Eve, let’s toast to the zebra finch, and allow the tiny birds to remind us that no one can endure too much of their white grape juice of choice without audible repercussions.