Beak deformities in black-capped chickadees have persisted in Southcentral Alaska for over 15 years, but researchers say they are making strides toward discovering the cause.
"We know a lot about what it isn't, but we're still searching for the magic bullet of what is causing it," said U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist Caroline Van Hemert. "Some of the work we're doing now is looking for evidence of a novel virus."
Van Hemert and her USGS colleagues have been banding birds and collecting samples for years, which allows them to collect valuable data for diagnostic testing. Mist nets and hanging funnel traps strategically placed in the forest allow the researchers to capture and hopefully recapture birds to assess the progress of beak deformities.
The abnormality has been seen in other species: red-breasted nuthatches, a number of species of woodpeckers, and jays, ravens and crows. But black-capped chickadees are by far the most common.
While the wildlife biologists continue their research, they're asking citizens to lend a hand. Since the birds are highly social and could potentially spread illness to one another, keeping feeding areas and water stations as clean as possible is good practice. To report a beak deformity visit USGS online and fill out a Beak Deformity and Banded Bird Observation Report.
Read more: Chemical contaminants suspect in mystery of Alaska chickadee beak deformities (2015)
Correction: One instance of Van Hemert's name in this story originally appeared as Van Hermet.