An outbreak of beak deformities is being seen in Alaskan Black-capped Chickadees. MSNBC.com 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
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