Researchers are struggling to find the cause for appalling deformities being spotted among Northwest birds. Grotesquely misshapen and overgrown beaks are turning up, most commonly among birds of prey and crows.
Living and dead birds are providing clues to a stubborn avian mystery. Tom Banse reports from the raptor ward at Washington State University.
Sara Manthey: “Hi, guys.”
Senior veterinary student Sara Manthey slips into a big cage holding two red-tailed hawks. She moves carefully to avoid their sharp talons. There’s nothing wrong with the claws. The hawk beaks are another story.
Sara Manthey: “You can tell that it doesn’t actually close all the way. The tip has grown so long and curved around so far that the bottom beak isn’t able to really fit up there.”
Manthey gets one of the hawks to perch on her gloved hand for closer inspection of its beak.
Sara Manthey: “It is more than twice the length that it should be. Yeah, very abnormal. She’s getting to the point that she really can’t even eat the bite size pieces that we’re giving her now.”
This bird was starving to death when passersby rescued it outside Seattle. Manthey arranged for the hawk to be transferred to W-S-U’s Raptor Center in Pullman.
Hundreds of other birds are not so lucky. The most commonly affected seem to be raptors and crows. But it’s easy to find distressing pictures of other species… from chickadees to hummingbirds.
Sara Manthey: “It’s so numerous in the Pacific Northwest that it’s scary.”
Manthey surveyed fish and game departments and wildlife rehabilitation centers across the region. Reports of affected birds stretch from California to Alaska. Sightings appear to be concentrated west of the Cascades. It gets sketchier the further east you go; for example, nothing in Idaho. Among researchers, this has become known as “long billed syndrome.”
Lindsey Oaks: “The big question is why. What’s causing this? I think that we’ve still got quite a ways to go.”
Veterinarian Lindsey Oaks studies animal diseases at the university in Pullman. Other researchers are based at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage and Oregon State University. Dr. Oaks says “many, many things” could cause a bird’s beak to grow abnormally.
Lindsey Oaks: “Since there are no inflammatory cells, no evidence of infectious disease, it sort of makes you want to think about toxins. But of course there are all kinds of toxins, all different sorts of things. There is nothing consistently associated with this type of disease that we’re aware of. So it presumably would be something new.”
Oaks says genetic defects could play a role as well. The affected birds are a mixture of residents and migrants, which adds to the mystery.
Lindsey Oaks: “Why don’t you have this disease in New York or in some of the urban red tailed hawks in southern California? You know, a lot of the chemicals that we’re concerned with in fact are used throughout the country and you have red tailed hawks throughout the country.”
Oaks hopes to unravel the mystery by figuring out what’s happening at the molecular level and then working backwards. So far, he’s found unusual proteins in affected birds that are not present in normal bird beaks.
Lindsey Oaks: “Ideally if all goes well, once you indentify those proteins, then you can look at the physiology of those sorts of proteins, what sort of things might affect them.”
Oaks guesses researchers are several years of hard work away from explaining the syndrome.
The mystery can’t be solved soon enough for student researcher Sara Manthey.
Sara Manthey: “Raptors are at the top of the food chain. They’re a sentinel species. This could be a very serious problem.”
If you see a bird with a deformed, crooked, or abnormally long beak, researchers want to know about it. They want ‘em dead or alive. There are forms to report sightings at the Washington State University veterinary medicine website and at the website of the Falcon Research Group. That’s the Skagit County non-profit that first discovered the syndrome.