Record 17% of Alaska Crows Deformed; Worse on Kenai

Beak Deformities, USGS

A stunning 17% of crows studied in Alaska have deformed beaks, a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey says. No one has ever recorded so many crows with deformed beaks before; it’s reached Chernobyl-like levels on the Kenai Penninsula, where 36% of beaks are misshapen.

The usual rate across many species is about 0.5%, this study found. This study is just the latest to freak out ornithologist, who have been noticing deformed across many species in the Northwest, since the late 1990s. One of the researchers, Colleen M. Handel, has documented beaks in 28 species in Alaska.

The real rate of deformed beaks must be higher since many birds can’t survive with a deformed beak.  The birds suffer from an elongated beak that is sometimes curved on the top, bottom or both. Not having a decent beak can make it hard to eat, maneuver, feed chicks and groom yourself. Bad beaked birds often look disheveled because they can’t take care of themselves.

Caroline Van Hemert, a USGS wildlife biologist, and Handel also found 6.5% of black-capped chickadees had bad beaks. When a defect crosses species, you know it’s not being handed down from the parents. The researchers also didn’t find any baby birds with problem beaks (not that a genetic disorder couldn’t manifest itself later in life). Some also have deformed claws or legs.

“We’re seeing ecologically unique species affected across a wide range of habitats. The scope of this problem raises concern about environmental factors in the region,” said Van Hemert.

They’re not sure what’s causing the outbreak of bad beaks. It’s what’s known as a keratin disorder. In 1987 Northern California birds born with corkscrew beaks and bulging brains were blamed on selenium, an agricultural runoff. My guess is that’s not around in Alaska. Other studies have blamed PCBs.

So, what would these deformities look like in people, since we don’t have beaks? There are keratin disorders in humans that have been linked to certain genes. It’s a lot of scary thin skin, blistery skin conditions. Until someone figures out what’s causing the bad beaks, it’ll be hard to see what the impact is on people.

Birders can help by reporting any birds they see with deformed bills.

Where to Go to See Odd (as in unusual, not deformed) Birds

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