John Mark Simmons, the co-founder of Two Birders and Binoculars, has enjoyed birding all his life and has won various birding competitions. John Mark also has an interest in the intersection of ornithology and aberration, as we learn in his first guest post on 10,000 Birds…
Beak deformities have baffled scientists for a number of years. They come in many forms: nuthatches with extremely long bills, thrashers with oddly curved bills, and chickadees with many different shapes and sizes of beak.
Chickadees have been the main focus for finding out how the deformities happen. The Alaska Science Center has been working with chickadees for many years, attempting to solve the problem. They began work in 1999, concentrating on the Black-Capped Chickadees of Alaska. So far, they have discovered 2000+ cases of chickadees as well as other birds that have a beak deformity.
Black-capped Chickadee with deformed beak
So what is causing this? Unfortunately, no one knows for sure, despite constant research. But the possibilities include disease, lack of nutrition, and parasites. Although these are most likely contributing factors, environmental contaminants are probably the main cause.
This is another reason to help keep the environment clean. It helps prevent beak deformities in birds! Although the Alaska Science Center concentrates on chickadees, they also study deformity cases in crows, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and jays.
Vermilion Flycatcher with deformed beak
You may ask, why are beak deformities bad? Well, there are several reasons why. First, the deformity has an effect on what foods the bird can eat. Chickadees for example, primarily eat seeds, if the bill is misshapen to the extent that they cannot open up the seeds, they cannot eat. This will only make their condition worse. Secondly, it could prevent them from being able to find a mate. Thirdly, a deformed beak is painful, extremely hard to adapt to living with, and takes away the beauty of the bird.
(Ed – To see the range of birds that suffer beak deformities, check out the amazing Birds with deformed bills gallery on Flickr!)
Long-billed syndrome is happening with raptors too, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk last year in the west desert of Utah that had a very extreme case of long-billed syndrome, the sickle type. A photo of the hawk can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/99ar8wz
I found out through Bud Anderson of the Falcon Research Group (http://www.frg.org/) that this was the first documented case of it in Utah and that there wasn’t anything that could be done to save the hawk’s life.
Research into beak deformities is; in my opinion, extremely important.
I agree with u Mia there is so much technology that there is no reason that something can’t be done
I am amazed to see they studied 2000+ cases! Wow. Deformed beaks are quite rare in Germany, and it would take ages to even come up with 200+. I wonder whey they are – presumably – more common in Alaska / North America?
We have seen deformed bills in Red Knot, Black-necked Stork and Great Bowerbird here in Broome.
I wasn’t aware that bill deformities were so prevalent with the Chikadees in Alaska! We have also witnessed some bill abnormalities a couple of times when we lived in Florida. We had a young Common Grackle which had some severe growths on his bill (the first link), and a Brown Thrasher that had an unusually long bill (second link). In our blog post about the Thrasher, there are links to a couple of articles that talk about Brown Thrashers with oddly long bills. Really interesting stuff.