Loved to death?


A black-capped chickadee with a deformed beak/USGS photo

What would you do if bird feeders – not some environmental pollutant – were implicated in the beak deformities suffered by Alaska chickadees, downy woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches, common ravens and a number of other birds?

Would your bird feeder come down, or would you leave it up and let nature take its course?

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “surveys show that nearly half the households in the United States provide food for wild birds.”

Most bird feeders do it for themselves.

“The appeal is obvious—by feeding birds we bring them close so we can see them more easily. Their colorful, lively company brightens up our lives, especially through the dreary days of winter,” notes Cornell.

But there are those who think they’re helping the birds with a feeder.

“Setting up a backyard bird feeder can make birds’ lives easier, too,” Cornell says. “In much of North America, winter is a difficult time for birds. Finding food can be especially challenging during periods of extreme cold.”

But what if by feeding birds with deformed beaks you are only extending their agony and possibly dooming other birds to the same fate?

The possibility can’t be ignored in the wake of new research suggesting the beak deformities seen in Alaska are the result of a virus.

No smoking gun

Scientists have yet to confirm a virus as a cause, but they have identified a unique virus in 100 percent of the birds with deformed beaks that have been tested.

“We know very little about this virus at this point but are planning an experiment to see how it is transmitted and if birds newly infected by the virus actually develop beak deformities,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Colleen Handel emailed. “It is still a great puzzle to me why the apparent epicenter of this outbreak should be in Alaska.”

Since the first deformed chickadee was spotted near King Salmon in 1991, “there has been an exponential increase in deformities,”she said. “We’ve documented the highest rates of deformities anywhere in the world, about 17 percent of adult Northwestern crows and about 6.5 percent of adult black-capped chickadees.  But there are other abnormal clusters of deformities in similar songbirds elsewhere in the world, most notably the UK (United Kingdom), although that outbreak appears to have been more recent than ours.”

Some of this Alaska increase is to be expected. Alaska birds with deformed beaks have long been a topic of discussion in the 49th state. They have been in the news for years, causing a lot of people to start looking for the phenomena.

Still, the data is startling. Alaska is home to a lot of deformed birds.

“You’re right about media attention generating interest and closer observation, resulting in an increase in reports,” Handel said. “But I think the increase is real. I’d been banding lots of chickadees and other songbirds in the Anchorage area during the early 1990s and had never encountered any individuals with beak deformities. I’ve also spoken with a lot of folks who had been feeding and watching their backyard birds for a long time. They had great records that they’d kept and could tell me when the deformities first appeared. They just didn’t know whom to tell or that it was even important until the word got out through the press.
“The added stressor (causing this) could also be severe weather that Alaska has to offer.”

Saving the weak

All of which brings us back to those bird feeders. Part of what could be going on in the harsh natural world of the 49th state is that bird feed is keeping alive birds that would die quickly in the wild because of the inability to sustain themselves on natural food.

And there could be a double-whammy to this.

If the problem is a virus, there are few places better to spread it than at a bird feeder where birds congregate, sometimes in great numbers.

Handel, who has been working on the study of deformed beaks for decades, said researchers are now trying to get a handle on whether the deformity is seen more in fed populations than in truly wild populations.

She has some concerns that any food sources that cause the birds to congregate in great numbers could be a problem.

“That’s a very real possibility,” she said. “We want to test experimentally how the virus is spread – likely through fecal-oral transmission. In that case, feeders could be problematic. The species most affected are very social birds (e.g., chickadees, crows) and occur in close association with other individuals that might be contagious.”

So, if you’re bird feeder was implicated, what would you do?







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