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Environmental contaminants and chromosomal damage associated with beak deformities in a resident North American passerine

January 5, 2015

A large cluster of beak abnormalities among black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) in Alaska raised concern about underlying environmental factors in this region. Metals and trace elements, organochlorine pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polychlorinated dibenzo-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDD-Fs) were analyzed in adults, nestlings, and eggs of the affected population; local bird seed was also tested for organochlorine pesticides. The results offered no support for the hypothesis that selenium or any other inorganic element was responsible for beak deformities among chickadees, but some evidence that organochlorine compounds may be contributing factors. Adults with beak deformities had an elevated level of chromosomal damage, which was correlated with lipid level and concentrations of several organochlorine compounds. Multivariate analyses of pesticides and PCBs did not distinguish abnormal from normal adults, but subsequent univariate analysis demonstrated higher concentrations of heptachlor epoxide and PCB-123 in abnormal adults. Concentrations of all organochlorine compounds were low, and none is known to cause beak or keratin abnormalities. Patterns of PCB congener concentrations differed between nestlings with normal and abnormal parents. Eggs from clutches with low hatchability had higher concentrations of hexachlorobenzene and PCDD-Fs than those with high hatching success, and hexachlorobenzene was found in seeds. Additional testing for PCDD-Fs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other emerging contaminants, including brominated compounds, is needed to rule out environmental contaminants as a cause of beak deformities in chickadees in Alaska.