Crows with broken beaks

It hurts to look at.  The physical pain incurred at the time of the injury, the likely chronic pain on the path to recovery, the dubious chance of survival, it all makes me reach for my mouth in horror when I see this bird.  To me, the idea of living on in spite of such a grotesque injury seems impossible.   Yet here this bird is, surviving, reminding me of what life is capable of.

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So now that I had my moment of sadness and awe, let’s get to what everyone wonders when they see a bird like this: Will a crow’s beak grow back if it’s broken and if not, can it survive?

Cracks or complete fractures like this can result from a number of things, though the list could be longer since these accidents are so rarely observed firsthand.  Perhaps it was traumatic run in with a window, or perhaps the upper or lower bill got trapped against a fulcrum point and an opposing surface.

As far as the prognosis is concerned, I asked birds experts, wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians and the answer was always an equivocal ‘maybe’.  Maybe it would heal back to something resembling normal and maybe it would remain stunted. Maybe it would survive and maybe it wouldn’t.  To fully understand the reasoning behind this ambiguity you need to understand how a bird’s beak is actually formed.

Like mammals, birds have two jaws bones that form the upper and lower mandibles.  These bones are surrounded by the nerves and blood vessels that support the beak’s functionality and growth. Protecting these layers is the outer lightweight layer of keratin called the rhamphotheca.  Like our fingernails, this layer is always growing and being replaced.

Depending on where the fracture occurs, the rhamphotheca can grow back enough to abolish the injury.  Unfortunately though, there’s not much room to work with before you hit bone, and the bone cannot be regrown.  In these cases the rhampotheca may heal over the exposed bone, but it may not grow back to full size since the template for its shape (the bone) has been stunted.  Even if it does grow back, it may not do so correctly, leading to twisty shapes.

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A crow skull.  You can see that the jaws bones are almost the full length of a crow’s beak.  The black outer layer, the rhampotheca, adds only a little (think mm) extra length so there’s not much that can be removed from the tip of the bill without hitting bone.

So what’s the prognosis?  Well again, that depends.  Even if the bill does not grow back correctly, or at all, some crows can learn to compensate.  Fortunately, being a generalist helps their chances considerably.  Although some foods may now be out of reach, many crows lean how to scoop, poke, and jab their way to a full stomach everyday. The same cannot be said for many species of bird whose beaks are the cornerstone for consuming a specialized diet.

So while it’s fair to be heartbroken at such an injury, it’s not cause for hopelessness. Many crows will learn to compensate, and go on to remind us of the beautiful stubbornness of life.

8 Comments

Filed under Corvid health, Crow behavior, Crow disease, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Crows with broken beaks

  1. Bryan

    You should check out June Hunter Images on Facebook:blog. She documents a crow with the same disability. It’s amazing how adaptable they can be!

  2. Thanks, Kaeli. I’ve been deluged with questions about the possibility of George’s beak regrowing – so now I can link people directly to this for a very full and scientific answer. In the meantime, he’s forging on and looking pretty healthy, all things considered.

  3. Reblogged this on The Urban Nature Enthusiast and commented:
    Kaeli Swift gives a very full and scientifically sound answer to the questions we’ve all been asking about the chances of George’s beak regrowing. Thanks, Kaeli!

  4. Thanks for this post. I am about to finish reading the novel “Johnny Got his Gun” which makes deformities quite stark. I also volunteer with Lights Out Baltimore, which includes getting injured (mainly window strike) birds to a rehabilitator who has remarkable but not perfect success. We don’t get many corvids but I get the point of the blog.

    Now I know a little more beak science than I did an hour ago. Thanks.

  5. A very interesting and informative post. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Crow curiosities: crows without tails | Corvid Research

  7. Ian Parry

    I have been feeding a crow with a broken beak on a level crossing in North Wales for 2 years. It turned up with its top half of the beak standing straight up in the air. I used to stack the food up for it so he could scoop it up . 50% of the top half fell off. I am convinced that it is growing back as he seems to be eating more normally now. The trouble is, if his beak grows back fully, I will not be able to recognise him. Cheers Ian Parry. Level Crossing Keeper. Tyn Y Morfa North Wales

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