Just before the start of the 21st century, scientists spotted chickadees in Alaska with grossly deformed beaks that seriously impeded the animals' ability to do the most basic tasks for survival, such as eating and grooming. With sightings on the rise—throughout the lower 48 states and in chickadees as well as nuthatches, woodpeckers, crows, and jays—scientists report in the journal mBio that they may be close to knowing the cause. They used sophisticated RNA sequencing to identify a novel virus, which they are calling poecivirus, found in 19 of 19 affected captured birds with so-called avian keratin disorder. They aren't ready to say poecivirus is it, but they do say they have a "a strong, statistically significant correlation" on their hands.
The virus was found in two of nine controls; it's possible the two acquired it so recently their beaks haven't started to change, reports National Geographic. "It’s a gut-wrenching experience when we see these small birds with gross beak deformities," a wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey in Anchorage says. "They’re handicapped in everything they do." The researchers named poecivirus after the black-capped chickadees’ Linnaean name, Poecile atricapillus, reports the Scientist. They're asking the general public to help keep bird feeders clean and report any sightings of birds with mangled beaks. "Take one look at a bird suffering from [this] and you'll understand the importance of stopping its spread," study co-author Jack Dumbacher says in a Science Daily news release. (These famed finches could soon be extinct.)