Green eclectus parrot sitting on branch with green leaves in Zoo

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Crackers just aren’t cutting it for Polly anymore.

Even as the opioid epidemic in the United States continues to take its toll on people, farmers in India are facing an altogether different problem: Parrots.

Farmers in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India that contains 380 square kilometers of government-licensed opium poppy fields, are becoming frustrated with local parrot populations attacking their crops. With their pleas for help being largely ignored by local officials, they’ve had to come up with their own solutions, which include detonating firecrackers, blasting loud noises from speakers, and keeping a round-the-clock watch on the crops. Alas, despite their best efforts, the parrots don’t seem to be letting up.

When it all began

The first major reporting of parrots attacking farmers’ opium supplies was in 2015, but it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. Since at least the 1950s there have been accounts of animals destroying opium crops in India. Rabbits, monkeys, rats, antelopes, and parrots all have a history of hitting up India’s opium fields, which sounds more like the plot for a Trainspotting-Dr. Dolittle crossover than a genuine agricultural problem. The antelopes in particular would sometimes become so addicted to opium that they refused to eat anything else.

When parrots attack

It’s not clear exactly why parrots seem to have become such a big problem in 2015, but the parrots definitely aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that they have become much more strategic over the years. Large groups of parrots will attack a farm 30-40 times in a single day. In most cases this would be a raucous affair, noisy enough to be heard from a good distance away. But these parrots, craving their next hit, have learned to keep their big beaks shut during these high-stake heists. Sometimes a parrot will even snap off an entire opium pod and make off with it, presumably seeking to make a profit selling it off in pieces as a side hustle.

The perfect time to strike

In order to extract the desired opium from the poppy’s pod, Indian farmers must first carefully pick a time and day when there isn’t likely to be any wind or rain that might wash away the opium. They make a line of small, shallow incisions in the unripe pod using a special instrument known as a nushtar. Over the course of an entire day, the opium slowly oozes out in the form of a thick, white latex, which the farmers later scrape off. This offers a lengthy window of opportunity for the parrots’ continued attacks, allowing them time to take as much of the addictive white substance as their little parrot bodies can handle, leaving the farmers with a big field of useless, dry pods.

What are opium, opiates, and opioids exactly?

The term opium specifically refers to the dried latex taken from the opium poppy. It contains a variety of chemicals, a sort of “narcotic cocktail”. We refer to these chemicals as “opiates”. For example, just over 10% of the opium cocktail is made up of morphine, a pain medication that is also used to make heroin, among other drugs. Opium also contains a dash of codeine, used as a painkiller, and a pinch of thebaine, a precursor to synthetic drugs such as oxycodone and oxymorphene. These synthetic drugs, which include heroin and any other drugs produced from opiates, are called opioids.

Opium is addictive

It’s no secret that opium is a highly addictive substance. Humans have been cultivating it for over 5,000 years, and a variety of drugs derived from opium are still prescribed to millions of Americans every year. Most opiates and opioids produce very similar effects on the mind and body when taken. They first bind to pain receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body, blocking them from receiving any pain-related messages, which makes the user feel pretty darn great. It also leads to an increased release of dopamine. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical often associated with activities such as making love, eating chocolate, or beating your annoying little brother at a video game. The more opioids a person takes, the less dopamine their body produces naturally, thinking that all the extra dopamine floating around must mean it’s been making too much. This leads to one of the main reasons substances are addictive. The abuser needs to take the drug on a regular basis simply to get the amount of dopamine in their body back to “normal” levels. If they want to feel the same hit they felt when first taking it, they need to increase their dose. Parrots have a fairly similar brain circuitry to that of humans and other primates, so it isn’t surprising that they are just as susceptible to the effects of opium as we are.

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) medium-sized species of parrot, Agra, IndiaRose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) medium-sized species of parrot, Agra, India
Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) medium-sized species of parrot, Agra, India / Getty Images

The cost of opium

With parrots, as with humans, their addiction to opium does not come without a cost. While parrots are normally diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and mostly sleep at night, consuming opium causes them to become so tired that large groups of them will take naps during the day in nearby trees. While this may seem peaceful and harmless at first, remember that after every high there is a comedown, and unfortunately for the parrots, this can have a very literal meaning. In some cases, birds will become so overwhelmed by the opium that it causes them to stagger and walk in circles, eventually losing their footing and falling to their deaths. Their hours-long trip can also mean they become easy targets for predators.

Opium trade in India

India has been cultivating opium poppies on a large scale for centuries. It’s currently one of the world’s only legal opium producers, and is the only country that legally exports opium, although a few other countries such as Turkey and Australia harvest opiates from the poppies using a slightly different method. The Indian government heavily regulates the production of opium, keeping track of how much is produced by farmers who have been granted permission to grow the poppies. Because the parrots have been reported taking as much as 10% of the yield from some farmers, it means these farmers won’t be able to deliver as much as they are expected to by the government, which could jeopardize their access to permits in the future.

Other animals like to get high too

While it may seem strange to think that animals enjoy drugs as much as humans, there are plenty of other examples of drug-users in the animal kingdom. Catnip is a prime example, a drug that can send most cats into an absolute world of bliss from just a few sniffs. Even wild cats, like leopards and tigers, are prone to its enchanting effects. Dolphins have been observed squeezing the toxins out of pufferfish and into their mouths, passing the fish between them like a blunt at a frat house. There are even animals in other parts of the world that have taken as much of a liking to opiates as parrots have. In Australia, wallabies have been observed getting hopped up on poppies.

It’s complicated

Although the parrot attacks might be devastating for some Indian farmers, it’s important to see the bigger picture. Efforts to curb opioid use in the US and around the world means that the demand for legal opium will likely decrease in the years to come. While officials in India should be offering a bigger hand in helping the farmers deal with their parrot problems, it might be even more important to consider how they might help these farmers thrive in a world that may soon need fewer opium farms. And while they’re at it, they might consider opening up a rehab center for those parrots.