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Species Affected

A total of 30 species, including 17 residents and 13 migrants, have been reported with beak deformities in Alaska (Table 1).

For more information on specific groups of birds, follow the links below:

| Black-capped Chickadees | Northwestern Crows | Other Species |

Table 1. List of species observed with beak deformities in Alaska

Common Name

Scientific Name

Status

Pacific Loon

Gavia pacifica

Migrant

American Kestrel

Falco sparverius

Migrant

Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Resident

Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus

Migrant

Sandhill Crane

Grus canadensis

Migrant

Black-legged Kittiwake

Rissa tridactyla

Resident

Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull Larus glaucescens x argentatus Resident

Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens

Resident

Hairy Woodpecker

Picoides villosus

Resident

Steller’s Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri

Resident

Black-billed Magpie

Pica hudsonia

Resident

Northwestern Crow

Corvus caurinus

Resident

Common Raven

Corvus corax

Resident

Black-capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapillus

Resident

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Poecile rufescens

Resident

Boreal Chickadee

Poecile hudsonica

Resident

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta canadensis

Resident

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Regulus calendula

Migrant

American Robin

Turdus migratorius

Migrant

Varied Thrush

Ixoreus naevius

Migrant

European Starling Sturnus vulgaris Resident

Orange-crowned Warbler

Vermivora celata

Migrant

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Dendroica coronata

Migrant

American Tree Sparrow

Spizella arborea

Migrant

Savannah Sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis

Migrant

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii

Migrant

Dark-eyed Junco

Junco hyemalis

Migrant

Pine Grosbeak

Pinicola enucleator

Resident

Common Redpoll

Carduelis flammea

Resident

Pine Siskin

Carduelis pinus

Resident


Black-capped Chickadees

A cluster of beak deformities among Black-capped Chickadees in Alaska has attracted significant public attention in recent years.  Approximately 7% of adult birds are affected, which is an unusually high prevalence of deformities in a wild bird population.

Large numbers of deformed Black-capped Chickadees were first reported in the late 1990s and biologists at the Alaska Science Center began research in 1999.  Approximately 500 nest boxes in Anchorage, Eagle River, and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley were monitored during the summers of 2000-2004.  In November of 2001 we began an ongoing winter banding study to determine the age and sex of affected birds.  In addition, this study has allowed us to identify differences in the numbers of beak deformities that have developed between seasons and years.

With help from the public, we have documented over 2,100 reports of Black-capped Chickadees with deformed beaks in Alaska (see map; Figure 1).  Deformed birds occur primarily in south-central Alaska, but have been increasingly reported from western and central parts of the state.  The first deformed Black-capped Chickadees were observed in winter 1991-1992.  That winter, single chickadees with deformed beaks were seen in King Salmon and Naknek in the Bristol Bay region and in Wasilla and near Nancy Lakes in the Mat-Su Valley. 

Observations of 1500 Black-capped chickadees in Alaska with deformed beaks

By comparison, few responses from outside of Alaska have been received from inquiries through Project FeederWatch, bulletin boards, and response to national media coverage.  Although they are year-round residents across forested regions of Canada and the northern two-thirds of the contiguous United States, only 31 Black-capped Chickadees with deformed beaks have been documented from outside of Alaska.

Chickadees are resident throughout Alaska and other parts of their range and are generally associated with deciduous or deciduous/coniferous forests.  They are primary cavity nesters, excavating holes predominantly in rotten wood of softwood trees (Smith 1991) and have several adaptations for surviving the extreme cold and short photoperiod characteristic of winter at high latitudes.  Chickadees often enter a state of regulated hypothermia at night (Chaplin 1974, 1976; Sharbaugh 2001), store and metabolize large amounts of fat daily (Chaplin 1974), and have a well developed spatial memory to relocate cached food (Hitchcock and Sherry 1990, Pravosudov and Lucas 2000, Pravosudov and Clayton 2002).


Northwestern Crows and Other Corvids

We conducted a recent study on Northwestern Crows and estimated prevalence of beak deformities in Alaska to be approximately 17% (see Current Research). The total number of affected individuals for this species is second only to that of Black-capped Chickadees. Crows with beak deformities have been reported in south-central Alaska and along the coast to southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and Puget Sound in Washington State (see map; Figure 2). Nearly 150 affected crows have been documented in Alaska alone and at least 60 additional birds have been identified across the rest of the Pacific Northwest. We have been soliciting reports from the public in Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington State and this information helps us to determine the number of birds affected and the geographic scope of these deformities.

Northern Crow with a beak deformity - photo by Jack Whitman

Northwestern Crow, photo by Jack Whitman

Although we have not yet determined the prevalence of beak deformities among other corvids (the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, jays, and magpies), more than 100 individuals have been documented in Alaska. The frequency of deformity sightings among Common Ravens, Black-billed Magpies, and Stellar's Jays suggests that prevalence is higher than normal background level for these species.

Reports of Northern Crows with beak deformities in Alaska

Although corvids overlap geographically with Black-capped Chickadees within the same broad region, there are significant differences in habitats used, particularly among Northwestern Crows.  Unlike insect- and seed-eating chickadees, crows normally feed in the intertidal zone on mussels and other filter feeders.  Presence of deformities in this species indicates that factors contributing to beak abnormalities occur in both terrestrial and marine/intertidal systems.


Other Species

In addition to Black-capped Chickadees, Northwestern Crows, Black-billed Magpies, Common Ravens, and Gray and Steller’s jays, 24 other species have been documented in Alaska with beak deformities.  Black-capped Chickadees have been the most commonly reported species, followed by Northwestern Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-billed Magpie, Steller’s Jay, and Downy Woodpecker (Table 2).

Table 2. Most frequently documented species with beak deformities in Alaska.

Species

# Individuals

Black-capped Chickadee

2,160

Northwestern Crow

148

Red-breasted Nuthatch

75

Black-billed Magpie

60

Steller’s Jay

39

Resident species include Red-breasted Nuthatches and Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, which are commonly reported with unusually long beaks.  Despite their use of habitats similar to nuthatches, woodpeckers, and Black-capped Chickadees, only five Boreal Chickadees and one Chestnut-backed Chickadee have been reported with beak deformities. 

Among migratory species, relatively few individuals from each of 10 passerine species have been documented with beak deformities in Alaska.  Among these, nearly all were juvenile birds captured or observed during autumn, meaning that they had been produced in the state.  Therefore, we assume that these individuals developed beak deformities while in Alaska and before leaving for wintering areas. 

Deformed beaks have also been recorded from waterbirds and raptors (Table 1), including one Pacific Loon seen near Sitka, one Black-legged Kittiwake near Cordova, two adult Bald Eagles on the Kenai Peninsula, and one nestling Peregrine Falcon on the Colville River in northern Alaska.

Reports of beak deformities in the broader Pacific Northwest region have also increased in recent years.  Many of these deformities appear to be similar to those that occur in Alaskan birds and suggest that a large geographic is affected.  The most commonly reported species from the Pacific Northwest include Red-tailed Hawks, Northwestern Crows, Northern Flickers, and Steller’s Jays.   A cluster of Red-tailed Hawks with beak deformities in Puget Sound is currently being investigated.

 

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