I made this little animation to show how this poor chickadee was being bothered by its beak deformity. Every so often it would rub its beak against the edge of the bird feeder like this. It appeared relatively healthy so it must have been able to eat satisfactorily, but apparently this deformity causes it to be obsessive about trying to scrape off the excess beak.
A few years ago a chubby Redpoll visited our feeder.
This antique dish had broken and I couldn’t part with it, so I put seed in it, and the redpoll adopted it. He (or she) sat right in it and ate and ate and ate. Like his full switch never got flipped.
He moved quite slow. My husband and I figured that he was missing some kind of instinct or characteristic that gives birds their fast-twitch, jumpy nature. Probably something that they need to survive.
He’s puffed up too because of the chilly weather, but this bird was quite unusual in that he was fatter, slower, and never flew away intermittently like the other birds. He was totally content to eat continuously, rarely looking up. This was the very last photo I took and out of at least 20, this is the only time I got him looking up.
After watching hundreds or even thousands of birds at the feeder over the years, this little guy’s behavior was profoundly different than all the others.
This junco hit our second story window and sat stunned, but alive, here on the ground last summer. Juncos are sweet little birds that we see from May to September all around our house pecking at seeds on the ground. They visit our feeder during this time but mostly stay on the floor of the deck or on the ground under the feeder, hopping around picking up fallen sunflower heart pieces and birch seeds. They can leave so late in the season, I believe, because they are only flying as far as the southern coast of Alaska where it doesn’t freeze so hard in the winter.
My husband and I immensely love watching our feeder birds: redpolls, juncos, chickadees, and hairy and downy woodpeckers. He often places small amounts of bird seed on the snow mounds that cover the deck railings and flower pots in the winter so that redpolls don’t have to mob the feeder and so that we can see them closer. We stand at the window and marvel at how they can live at 30 below zero, and at their quick movements and little arguments.
But I wonder that having a bird feeder is the best thing for the birds. Many birds hit our windows, but by far most of them end up alive (though certainly a bit damaged afterwards). After they hit the windows as they sit stunned until they are able to fly away, they are undoubtedly vulnerable to predation. There’s a neighborhood cat that I fear visits in the wee hours of the morning in the summer and I have no idea if it uses the feeder as a baiting station. I have no evidential reason to believe this but am concerned. Other than that cat our neighborhood totally lacks outdoor cats as far as we can tell. This one we’ve only seen twice in our 5 years here. (And our two cats don’t go outside without being chaperoned.)
Feeding birds seems on the surface not a bad idea. But is it good to get them reliant on what we provide? So that they lose just a little bit of their natural foraging skills to their eventual detriment? What about the seed itself… are there pesticides on it, or fungicides? Is it even good for a redpoll or chickadee to eat that much sunflower heart instead of what it would normally find in nature? Could there sometimes be mold on the seeds that would be dangerous to the birds? Is feeding birds related to the sickness of chickadees that results in 6-10% of them having beak deformities? I’ve read up a bit on this topic and there are not a lot of answers to be had (although plenty of guesses and opinions).
So unfortunately, I’m not convinced that feeding birds is the absolute right thing to do, but I’m unwilling to give it up unless I see direct evidence that it harms them more than it helps them. The only way I know for sure that it harms them is when they hit the windows. I’ve went to great lengths to try to prevent it, such as wiring and beads that I once strung across our largest window for a few years. The thing is, I know that they would hit the windows even if we didn’t purposefully draw them here to our house with food.
Alas, it would be a sad sad day for my husband and I if we were to decide that the harm to the birds outweighs the benefits (to us and the birds).
You can see here the redpolls chowing down today on the seed my husband has strewn on the snow in front of the window. The temperature gauge doesn’t go colder than 20 below – it’s about 30 below zero (F) right now. I can’t imagine those poor little guys can’t use some extra food at this temperature!
But am I justifying? This summer I plan to try something else on the windows: CDs strung on wires or string. I’ve also switched out the bird feeder when it was just too hard to clean anymore. Any tips are welcome! Thanks for reading.
First seen in the winter of 1991-92, Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformities are now quite common, according to the Alaska Science Center. To date, there have been over 2100 reports of chickadee beak deformities in Alaska, and only 31 outside of Alaska. In the photo above, you can see that the chickadee’s beak is at least twice as long as it should be, and the bottom part is crossed and curved up.
The Northwestern Crow suffers from this malady as well, with an astounding 17% of adult birds in Alaska exhibiting some level of beak deformity (as opposed to 6-10% of adult Black-Capped Chickadees).
Other birds with reported beak deformities are the Black-Billed Magpie, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and Stellar’s Jay – although none of these reports come anywhere close to the high number of sightings of the Black-Capped Chickadee. Other species of chickadee have been seen with the problem too but they number under 10 total. Whatever the source of the problem, Black-Caps are especially vulnerable to it.
This map (from alaska.usgs.gov) shows locations of Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformity sightings. At first they were centered around Bristol Bay and the Mat-Su Valley but they soon spread to Fairbanks (where I live) and elsewhere. There are plenty of sightings in remote locations so the problem does not exist only in populated areas.
The poor creatures with deformed beaks often have a very hard time eating – it’s actually kind of amazing that they do get by at all. The one on the right kept rubbing the elongated portion of its beak on the wood of our feeder, as if attempting to rub it off. No doubt feeders and even garbage help to keep them alive but mortality is undoubtedly higher among them. Normal preening is greatly disrupted. And though many of them do find a mate and breed, fewer eggs hatch to a pair in which the female is deformed and fewer young survive when the male is deformed.
Possible causes are contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, disease, genetic abnormalities and parasites. Read more about those at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beak_deformity/causes.html
On the left is an example of a normal beak.
My most recent “new bird” was the Pine Grosbeak, which came to the sunflower seed hearts laid out on our deck railing on October 13th 2011. When you first start being interested in birds it’s like every one you see is a “new bird” to you. And though Pine Grosbeaks are not uncommon here in Fairbanks, I never came across one until now even after 6 or 7 years of birding.
This one is either a female or immature male; adult males are bright red. Their vocalizations are quite melodious. This species is not endangered – it is somewhat common in northern coniferous forests. It does venture down into the midwest and eastern states in winter sometimes.
Pine Grosbeaks are generally monogamous, forming pairs before arriving at their breeding grounds. The female builds a nest, lays 3 or 4 eggs, and the male brings her food while she sits on them for about 2 weeks. When they hatch, both parents feed them for another couple of weeks while in the nest, but they continue to beg for food even after leaving the nest. I’m guessing this one is a young male, possibly searching for a flock to join because except for during breeding time they are usually seen in large flocks. My husband and I enjoyed seeing this bird during an early snow with a dollop of snow on the tip of its beak. Hope it found some friends!