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Long-billed Hawk Syndrome

In April 2006, the Wildlife Care Center received its first known case of Long-bill Hawk Syndrome. Birds with this syndrome have abnormal, uncontrolled growth of the upper and/or lower bills.

Long-billed syndrome

In April 2006, an adult Red Tailed Hawk with a severely overgrown, rotten beak was brought to the Wildlife Care Center. The bird - unable to eat due to the abnormal beak - was emaciated, weak and in poor body condition.

This bird was the Wildlife Care Center’s first known case of Long-bill Hawk Syndrome. Birds with this syndrome have abnormal, uncontrolled growth of the upper and/or lower bills. The abnormality is isolated to the keratin of the beak; the talons of these birds, also made of keratin, appear normal. The beaks themselves are overgrown and often have secondary infections.  Due to the many essential functions of birds’ beaks, affected birds may be quite debilitated. Beak abnormalities may interfere with eating, grooming, courtship, killing, feeding young, and other activities. Most of the affected birds die from starvation.

The condition has been called Long-billed Hawk syndrome because the majority of affected birds have been Red Tailed Hawks, but other bird species have also been observed with similar overgrown beaks. Bud Anderson, director of the Falcon Research Group, has gathered reports of sightings in Peregrine Falcons, Rough-legged Hawks, and other raptors. Species other than raptors may be affected. Colleen Handel, with the USGS in Anchorage, Alaska, has been studying beak abnormalities in 29 bird species in Alaska, particularly in chickadees and corvids.

Anderson has been following the syndrome since 1997 when the first case was reported in Washington state. Reports of affected birds have been increasing. Although initial cases were seen in Washington, new cases are being reported in Oregon and California, suggesting the disease is spreading southward.

Unfortunately, the cause of the Long-billed Hawk syndrome remains unknown. Affected birds have been analyzed for environmental contaminants(toxins), parasites, nutritional deficiencies, and infectious diseases. The findings are puzzling in that possible individual causes are found, but there has been no universal finding to suggest the true cause of this malady. Research is underway to investigate whether there is a single cause of the beak malformation or if there are multiple causes being lumped together as one syndrome. Wildlife biologists, pathologists, toxicologists, virologists, wildlife rehabilitators, and veterinarians are pulling together to find a cause.

Since the original Long-billed Hawk came to the Wildlife Care Center there have been 4 more cases, all Red Tailed Hawks. We are determined to help find a cause. If you find a sick or dead bird with a deformed beak please contact the Wildlife Care Center at 503-292-0304. If you see a wild bird that appears to have this syndrome report the bird species and location to Bud Anderson at bud@frg.org.        

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