My summer as a wildlife technician with the CWHC

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“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
– Confucius

I am a summer student at the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) Western/Northern Region and this is how I feel coming to work every morning because I never know what excitement lies within an upcoming day’s work!

My summer begins in the frigid May waters of Blackstrap Lake where we spend hours in the water dragging a seine net along the shores in hopes of catching yellow perch to bring back to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The goal is to investigate how a protozoan parasite, Myxobolus neurophilus, infects yellow perch and potentially hampers their ability to evade predators.

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Tracking mule deer near Cabri, SK

After only a week on the fish project, I am transferred over to my immediate supervisor, Marnie Zimmer whom I will get to know quite well after spending countless hours on the road with for the next couple of months. Marnie and I travel down to Cabri for a day where she teaches me how to track radio collared deer using a Yagi antenna. I find this experience exhilarating as wild cervids have been a major interest of mine since I was a child. Sadly, tracking these mule deer for ongoing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) research at the CWHC only encompasses a couple of days work throughout the summer.

For nearly all of June and July, the two of us accumulate over 400km per day travelling to three different water bodies in central Saskatchewan. At Indi, Barber and Rice Lakes, Marnie and I set circular wire funnel traps to catch wild waterfowl. We attempt to focus on dabbling ducks, including the American Wigeon, Blue & Green Winged Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler, by baiting the traps with barley grain in hopes that the birds will swim in through the funneled entrance which is then too small for the ducks to escape back through. Each morning as a pair we retrieve these ducks which are swimming around inside our traps and proceed to put a metal band on each adult’s lower leg. The band is used as an identification and migration tracking tool. We then swab each bird’s oropharyngeal cavity and cloaca to test for avian influenza virus (AIV) before releasing the bird back into its natural habitat. The purpose of banding and swabbing over 600 birds in total is to provide early surveillance and detection of possible strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV) which could pose a threat to poultry producers in the area as seen in Ontario, BC, and the United States. Thankfully no HPAIV strains have been detected through our project thus far.

Releasing an adult Mallard after capture

Releasing an adult Mallard after capture

To conclude July, the majority of the CWHC Western/Northern staff head to the Quill Lakes to investigate what Ducks Unlimited suspects to be a botulism die off. Within one busy work day we collect 100 birds displaying clinical signs of Clostridium botulinum toxicity. These signs include paralysis of the legs followed by the wings and eventually the anterior end of the bird, causing death by drowning as the bird is unable to hold its head above the water, or by respiratory failure if the bird is inhabiting dry land.

In my final month at the Western/Northern office which seems to appear out of nowhere, I spend one or two days in the field each week on either Blackstrap or Buffalo Pound Lake dredging for oligochaete worms or taking water quality measurements, both of which link back to the yellow perch die off research where my summer began. One may ask what a worm has to do with a tiny parasite infecting yellow perch. The research of Dr. Trent Bollinger, the director of the Western/Northern regional office believes that in order for the Myxobolus parasite to infect yellow perch, it must first develop to a mature state within an intermediate host. In this case the intermediate host is the oligochaete worm. We are sifting through muddy lake beds to see if these worms are present, thus allowing the life cycle of Myxobolus neurophilus to be completed.

Taking part in all these projects has broadened my knowledge of wildlife health. I have not only become more familiar with the health issues I have dealt with this summer but have gained awareness about other diseases such as white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats and chytrid fungus in salamanders, both of which are emerging diseases in Canada that pose a significant threat to these keystone species.

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Setting traps in the early hours of the morning

Submitted by Collin Letain, CWHC Western/Northern Summer Student

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