Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hummingbird or Red-breasted Nuthatch?

Every now and then I receive a photo at work that is amazing. This one wins the prize so far this year.

Frequenting a feeder in Superior, Wis., this Red-breasted Nuthatch has a deformed bill, giving it the appearance of a hummingbird.

This is most likely avian keratin disorder, where the beak becomes overgrown and often crosses after a certain length. This disorder has exploded in the past three years in Alaska, western Canada and the state of Washington. It's estimated that as high as 17% of all Alaskan crows have this disorder. It typically affects corvids and chickadees, but other species periodically present signs of it.

In these photos, the beak doesn't appear to be crossed and fortunately, the bird has been observed eating and cracking nuts and seeds at the feeder (which I find amazing to be honest).

Sadly, there's nothing that can be done for this. The beak will just continue to grow and in larger birds, the bone beneath the keratin eventually breaks down, leaving no support for the beak.

There is new research being done on the disorder, but currently there is no definitive answer as to why this disorder is increasing. Scientists believe it may be a result of toxins in the environment.

Here is some additional reading:
 - a Red-tailed Hawk at a rehab facility contributes samples to forward study on this disorder (April 2012)

 - original USGS release about Avian Keratin Disorder

 - a Minnesota chickadee with Avian Keratin Disorder captured and banded (Dan Tallman's blog)

Many thanks to homeowner Vern S. and Duluth, Minn., rehabber Peggy Farr
for sharing these photos.


  1. Thank you for posting this Tami. I knew that some birds had problems with beak deformities but I never knew about this specific disorder and how widespread it is. The proverbial canary in the coal mine maybe?

  2. Thanks for posting this Tami. I knew that some birds had bill deformity problems but I never knew about this specific disease. The proverbial canary in the coal mine maybe?

    1. It truly is, Larry - especially if it is due to toxins as they suspect. An earlier outbreak in the Lake Superior area more than 20 yrs ago was due to toxins in the environment.

  3. Tami, this is really interesting, and I've read about the disorder too. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Tami, I photographed a Red-tailed Hawk here in Utah (the first reported in the state) last fall that had an extreme case of the "sickle" type of long-billed syndrome. I was so very saddened when I learned nothing could be done for the hawk. I've also seen this in Western Meadowlarks and recently in a Sage Thrasher.

    1. How amazing that you were there to document that first hawk, Mia. What an important record that is. I hadn't heard to it spreading to meadowlarks and thrashers. Suppose any species can develop it since beaks are all the same material. So sad to see...