Beak Deformities in Landbirds

Science Center Objects

Over the past 20 years, Alaskans have witnessed a startling increase of beak deformities among Black-capped Chickadees and other species of resident birds. This disease, called avian keratin disorder (AKD), is characterized by debilitating beak overgrowth and other abnormalities of keratinized tissues. Affected birds have difficulty feeding and preening, and may suffer high rates of mortality.

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A Black-capped Chickadee with a deformed beak trying to eat at a suet ball

A Black-capped Chickadee with a deformed beak trying to eat at a suet ball

(Credit: Sherry Shiesl. Courtesy: Sherry Shiesl)

We began research in 1999, and have since identified more than 3,000 affected Black-capped Chickadees in Alaska—the highest concentration of gross deformities ever recorded in a wild bird population!  Increasing numbers of other species, including Northwestern Crows, Downy Woodpeckers, Steller’s Jays, and Black-billed Magpies have also been observed with beak deformities throughout the state. Growing numbers of reports from North America and Europe suggest that AKD may be spreading to a larger geographic area.

In 2016, we identified a novel picornavirus (Poecivirus) in Alaskan Black-capped Chickadees with AKD. We’ve subsequently confirmed a strong association between Poecivirus and beak deformities in chickadees and detected a closely related virus in other species with similar beak deformities. Together, this evidence suggests that Poecivirus is a likely candidate cause of AKD. Our current investigations are focusing on understanding more about this virus, including how it may be contributing to beak deformities, whether it occurs in multiple species, and how it is transmitted. Previously, we examined potential factors, such as environmental contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, and parasites, found no clear evidence linking these to AKD in Alaskan birds.

Reports from the public help us to determine where and how many birds are affected.  If you see a bird with a beak deformity, please contact us.