Beak Deformities in Alaskan Birds is Environmental Says Study

An outbreak of beak deformities is being seen in Alaskan Black-capped Chickadees. reports northwestern crows are also demonstrating the abnormality, as well as 28 other bird species native to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

A recently released study by Colleen Handel and Caroline Van Hemert in the quarterly Journal of Ornithology, The Auk reports on what has been identified as Avian Keratin Disorder.  When keratin on a bird’s beak grows at an abnormally fast pace, the beak will become elongated and sometimes crossed.
Take a look at the photo array of beak deformaties from the study.

Abnormal beak shape can impede a bird’s foraging for food and the ability to properly preen themselves.  Both activities are imperative for survival in the wild.  This phenomenon is also negatively impacting the bird’s reproductive and parenting abilities. 

While it is possible for this to be caused by viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infections, the rate at which it has been documented in Alaska infers the cause is environmental.  Especially since it has been seen in such a large variety of bird species.  Avian Keratin Disorder can also affect skin, claws and feathers.

Keratin is what our fingernails are made of.  Have you ever wondered how women with 4″ long fingernails manage personal hygiene and other essential activities of daily living? Now picture a wild bird trying to stay alive with that kind of handicap.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) research biologist Colleen Handel reported, “The prevalence of these strange deformities is more than 10 times what is normally expected in a wild bird population.”   
Between 1999 and 2008, beak abnormalities in the Black-capped Chickadees increased from 3.6 to 9.7%, according to the study. 

The fact only 0.05% nestlings and 0.3% juvenile birds — 6 months of age or less — were found with beak deformities suggests the condition is acquired and not genetic.  Two well known environmentally-derived deformities in birds have been documented.  The Great Lakes region in the mid 1970′s saw high rates of beak and other malformations due to persistent organochlorine contaminants.  Agricultural runoff of selenium in California during the 1980′s caused a high incidence of beak and other abnormalities among aquatic birds.

The actual cause of the Alaskan beak deformities in birds is still being studied.   Let’s hope the cause is discovered quickly so the presumed contamination can be contained and corrected.

photo credit: USGS photo used with permission


Jan Sam
Jan Sam4 years ago

one cause might be the pcb contamination in the north.

Donald B.
Donald B5 years ago

Let's hope science can find an answer for these birds. What a difficult time they must have trying to eat with beaks like that.

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson5 years ago

Major wakeup calls!

jill bukovnik
jill Campbell6 years ago

Hopefully the scientists will find out what is happening and be able to stop it. That's one of the only chances they have at the moment.
If I read this properly in the 80's in California they soon found out what was making the deformities in their birds. Run of of Selenium from farms, who use it for their cattle....... imagine that!!

John E.
John E6 years ago

I cannot understand why God/Allah would create birds with these disfunctional beaks. This does not appear to be intelligent design at work.
Perhaps Sarah Palin has the answer.
My money is on the voracious greedy thoughtless creature known as man being the cause of these deformations.
Thank you Megan.

Carla Manning
Carla M6 years ago

Very sad. I hope those with abnormalities can adapt to it to survive.

Carol Cowbrough
Carol C6 years ago

Oooh, this is so sad. Poor birds.

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman6 years ago


ALI AHARBIL6 years ago

something must be done to stop this

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado6 years ago

Ho will the birds survived with this deformity?