We recently documented an epizootic of beak deformities in more than 2,000 Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and other wild bird species in North America. This emerging avian disease, which has been termed avian keratin disorder, results in gross overgrowth of the rhamphotheca, the outer, keratinized layer of the beak. To test the hypothesis that the beak deformities characteristic of this disorder are associated with accelerated keratin production, we measured rates of beak growth and wear in affected Black-capped Chickadees (n=16) and a control sample of unaffected chickadees (n=14) collected from south-central (61°09′–61°38′N, 149°11′–149°48′W) and interior Alaska (64°51′–64°53′N, 147°49′–147°59′W). Rates of absolute growth were 50–100% higher in affected birds than they were in control birds and exceeded records from other passerine species. These results suggest that abnormally rapid epidermal growth is the primary physical mechanism by which beak deformities develop and are maintained in affected chickadees. Although beak overgrowth typically worsened over time, differential patterns of wear influenced the severity and morphology of deformities. In some cases, the effects of accelerated keratin growth were partially mitigated by frequent breakage of rhamphothecal tips. However, mortalities occurred in 9 of 16 birds (56%) with beak deformities during the study, suggesting that avian keratin disorder results in severe health consequences for affected birds. Additional study of factors that control beak keratin production is needed to understand the pathogenesis of this debilitating disease in wild birds.
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Vol. 48 • No. 3