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.
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.
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.