Homeless in Vancouver: Crow’s deformed beak points to increasingly ugly threat to birds

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      The sight of a scruffy, undersized crow with a weirdly deformed beak tugged the heartstrings of several pedestrians in the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue Thursday afternoon (August 30).

      And while I ultimately learned that this particular crow is doing just fine (thank you very much), it brought to my attention, what appears to be a growing problem of bird beak deformities.

      Called avian keratin disorder (AKD), it often has fatal consequences for affected birds.

      Crow with a nasty-looking underbite

      Another view of the crow, with the deformity of its beak highlighted.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      It was a retired Fairview resident who saw me sitting at my laptop in the 1400 block of West Broadway McDonald’s and alerted me to the pathetic-looking crow. She described it as having an “upside-down beak”.

      I found said crow walking around in the alley beside the restaurant. It was small and its feathers were ruffled and disarrayed. At first glance its beak did look topsy-turvy, with the bottom part being long and upcurving and the top part maybe half the length of the lower part.

      There was a bit of white stuff lodged in the tip of the crow’s lower beak, which it was trying to dislodge. I watched as it repeatedly turned its head to the side and scrapped the tip of its lower beak on the pavement—but to no avail.

      The ugliest crow in Vancouver in all its grotesque glory.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      While I alternately took photos of the crow and tried to see if it would stand to be caught (it wouldn’t), a young woman stopped to watch.

      She explained that she did not like to see anything suffer and several times advised me to call someone.

      She was so stricken by the sight of the miserable little deformed crow that she completely forgot she was holding a phone of her own that she could use to call someone with.

      I assured her that I would call an animal rescue agency if necessary.

      However, my fears that the crow was physically incapacitated and unable to feed itself were answered, both by the bird itself—which I saw demonstrably opening its beak to pick up crumbs off the pavement—and by a fellow sitting in the alley, who had been watching the crow for some time. He had seen it take wing, he said, and fly around the alley.

      After I tweeted a photo of the crow, I received one reply suggested that I call 1-800-465-4336. When I did I was connected to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada “Observe, Record and Report line”

      According to multiple online sources this is the number to call, in order to report a sick, injured, distressed, or dead marine mammal or sea turtle.

      Had I needed to call animal rescue I was planning to phone the Burnaby-based Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C. (604-526-7275). This group had come to the rescue in 2014, when a South Granville BIA guard found a badly injured baby seagull.

      Fortunately a homeless friend came along who is a devoted observer of Fairview’s flora and fauna. He knew this crow very well. He called it “Scruffles” and had been following its exploits for over four years. Despite appearances it thrived, he assured me.

      And as for the disheveled appearance of the crow’s feathers, another Twitter user suggested that this was likely due to molting—a harmless, getting-ready-for-winter thing that crows do this time of year.

      The shape of its beak, however, is another matter. This is not a breakage, it’s a deformity and according to what I read, this crow is lucky that it’s not worse. Extreme beak deformities are increasingly common among crows and other bird species—often with fatal consequences!

      A dangerous new twist on being a bird

      Two black-capped chickadees and one red-breasted nuthatch with AKD. (Upper left and lower left photos Maxine Zylberberg et al.)

      Avian keratin disorder (AKD) is twisting and deforming the beaks of growing numbers of wild birds around the world, making it difficult to impossible for them to feed, groom, and survive. Scientists believe they have isolated the cause but no one has a clue how to cure the disorder or stop it from spreading.

      AKD is characterized particularly by excessive and/or distorted beak growth but it can also affect a bird’s claws. It was first recognized some 20 years ago in Alaska, among crows and chickadees.

      By 2010, according to reports, AKD was estimated to annually affect 6.5 percent of all adult Alaskan black-capped chickadees. At that time it was also seen to be spreading outside Alaska—to British Columbia—and to additional bird species, including nuthatches and woodpeckers.

      Today AKD is described as affecting chickadees, crows, and other birds in North America. And according to sources such as National Geographic, in recent years AKD has been seen in bird populations far outside of North America:

      “Already the deformities seem to be spreading: Bird watchers in the Pacific Northwest, Great Britain, India, and South America have been reporting growing numbers of birds with deformed beaks, including 24 species in North America and 36 in the United Kingdom.”

      The National Geographic report cites a 2016 paper in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology identifying the possible culprit behind AKD as a hitherto unknown picornavirus, which researchers have named poecivirus.

      Researchers, led by University of California, San Francisco, disease ecologist Maxine Zylberberg, genetically screened 19 AKD-affected and 9 unaffected black-capped chickadees and found the presence of poecivirus in 100 percent (19) of the chickadees with AKD and only 22 percent (2) without the disfigurement.

      In June of this year the National Center for Biotechnology Information published further research by the poecvirus team. This time the researchers used a much larger sample group of 124 symptomatic and asymptomatic black-capped chickadees. The result was poecivirus in 100 percent of chickadees with obvious AKD but only 9.4 percent of chickadees with no symptoms of AKD.

      As the National Geographic report points out, the only good news that comes with isolating a viral cause of AKD is that it enables an accurate test for AKD, which, at least, allows the spread to be tracked.

      The bad news is that knowing AKD is caused by a virus does not tell us anything about the transmission mechanism or the possible treatments. It just tells us that we could be in for a sweeping global pandemic among birds. 

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.