Long-billed Hawk Syndrome

We first heard about the Long-billed Hawk Syndrome at the High Desert Museum. We read a short article that was posted on a bulletin board in their Birds of Prey exhibit hall. Curious and concerned, I did a bit of research on the web, and thought I’d share it with you. The first case was documented in Washington in 1997 when a Red-tailed Hawk was found with an abnormally large bill.

Apparently the abnormality is caused by accelerated growth in the keratin of both the maxilla and the mandible. Oddly enough the keratin in their claws does not show any signs of abnormal growth. Most birds affected with the syndrome are severely limited in their ability to feed and care for themselves. Many slowly die of starvation. The birds can usually be easily caught with the promise of food and some have been successfully rehabbed. Unfortunately, many of them are already so weak that they die.

In the past decade numerous species, primarily along the West Coast, have been reported with atypical bills: Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Ospreys, Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds in Montana, and Black-capped Chickadees in Alaska. Researchers are concerned because a larger number of birds are being affected and the syndrome is no longer restricted to birds of prey.

Very little is known about the underlying cause of the debilitating growth; scientists have yet to rule out toxins, disease, or parasites. In order to get a better idea about the scope of the problem and to identify other species that are affected by the Long-billed Hawk Syndrome researchers are asking the public to report any sightings. So, as you are out there enjoying nature in all her beauty this summer, keep your eyes peeled. If you see something out of the ordinary, please report it. I’m sure pictures would be very helpful too.

Oh, and please pass this on to all your bird lovin’ friends out there…

For more information: Visit the Falcon Research Group and read the March 31, 2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article.