In his back yard in Fremont, Nikos Anton spotted a house sparrow that seemed to be toting a twig in its beak.
But when he looked a little closer, Anton saw the “stick” was actually the grotesquely misshapen and overgrown top half of the bird’s beak.
“Look at that!” he said, pointing to his pictures of the bird. “It’s like an elephant trunk. … It’s a very odd thing happening here in Seattle.” But it’s not just here.
This “long-billed syndrome” has been recorded in about 160 birds by a Skagit County researcher, mostly in Western Washington and southern British Columbia and mostly since 2000. It’s also documented in more than 2,100 birds in Alaska, where the phenomenon seems to have started affecting lots of birds in the early 1990s.
Researchers say the weird beaks appear to be concentrated in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, although reports are coming in from farther south — from Southern California in one case earlier this month.
What’s the cause? That remains a mystery. A small band of puzzled, poorly funded scientists is scrambling to find answers. Could it be chemicals? Something genetic? A disease? Maybe a combination?
Could it affect humans?
Whatever the cause, researchers are left profoundly unsettled by the mysterious “long-billed syndrome.”
“It’s really tragic,” said Bud Anderson of the Falcon Research Group, based in Skagit County. “It’s grotesque. It’s horrible. It makes me want to puke.”
Researchers are asking the public to report sightings of any such birds so they can get a better feel for the extent of the phenomenon.
When affected birds are brought into wildlife-rehabilitation centers, their feathers often are dirty and matted, because a misshapen beak inhibits preening. For the same reason, they often are infested with feather lice.
And sometimes they’re starving. Birds need to eat a lot every day, and they use their beaks much as we would use our hands. So what rehab centers are often left with is a dirty, cold, hungry and miserable bird. Many die.
“Who knows how many have died out in the field?” Anderson said. When Anderson first noticed long-billed birds in Western Washington in the late 1990s, the deformities were more pronounced, he said. Now, it looks like more birds are affected, but not quite as badly.
Most affected birds in Western Washington are red-tailed hawks. Second on the list are crows. Others include the sparrow in Fremont, black-capped chickadees, Steller’s jays, northern flickers and a raven. Also involved are a variety of songbirds, including woodpeckers, wrens and seabirds, including gulls and one common murre.
In Alaska, by far the majority are black-capped chickadees. But the syndrome has been seen in at least 28 other species there, including starlings, Steller’s jays, magpies, robins and sparrows.
Birds’ beaks are made of keratin, similar to human fingernails and hair. Normally, beaks wear down with use, continuing to grow at the same time. There’s a balance. But something is causing this super-fast growth — and it doesn’t get turned off.
At least in Alaska, where the phenomenon is best studied, birds can go from normal to long-beaked in as little as a month. Sometimes the misshapen beaks break off, but they grow back right away.
Researchers wonder: Why just the beaks? Why not the birds’ toenails, which also are made of keratin?
So far, there is no evidence the deformities are caused by disease — including infections, bacteria and viruses — or parasites. But researchers are pursuing those ideas, as well as chemicals.
Beak deformities have been seen in individual birds here and there for a long time.
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