Cape Dorset, 2012, looking inside the ducks

So although duck hunting is a great excuse to be outside, see some sights and get out of the office, the real reason that we are here duck hunting is so we can take a look inside. We work with a number of researchers interested in different topics from wildlife disease to population dynamics, along with my own interests harmful contaminants and parasites, and as a result from each bird that we collect, depending on the year and location, we can take up to 23 different samples and measurements from a single bird. We always start by labeling all the jars, envelopes and bags.

This year Joanna has worked with Paulassie and Tutuya, two of our hunters, to label our demonstration sampling containers in both English and Inuktitut. Although we are still searching for the Inuktitut word for spleen…….

In Cape Dorset we are very lucky to be able to use the Conservation Officers office/warehouse.  Most of the birds we dissect here. This year I was lucky enough to have some great help. Below you can see Joanna, a student from the Nunavut Arctic College’s Environmental Technology Program who is helping us this year, and Sam, another student in the Gilchrist lab, dissecting a male eider with Joanna doing the cutting and Sam bagging and labeling. By the end of the dissection all the bags and jars you can see on the table are full.

First, we process the bird.  This includes weighing it, measuring its wing, head, bill and tarsus. Next, we sample take both breast feathers (for genetics work), the right tail feather (to study stress hormones) and both breast and tail feathers (for contaminant studies). If we are monitoring for disease we also take an 2 oral sawbs and 2 cloacal swabs. After all the external measurements and samples are taken we start by opening up the bird.

But, opening up lots of birds can be a lot of work, and the more hands I can involve the better.  So whenever I can recruit a few students along the way to help, I always do. Here in Dorset both the high school and the elementary school kids helped out this year. We talk about ecology, local birds, and the function of different organs as I dissect the bird. To open the bird I make a small cut and pull back the skin covering the breast muscle.  All this is done with care (and while wearing gloves) so that I don’t touch the muscle which we sample for harmful chemicals.

After the muscle is removed the ribs are cut and the sternum pulled back to expose all the organs, which is where we really start to fill sample jars and bags.  While I dissect and pull samples out, the students help bag the tissues and make sure that I don’t miss anything!

From the body cavity we take the heart, the entire liver (though it gets split in half, some for chemical analysis and some for the disease specialists, and we weigh it), the spleen, the entire gastro-intestinal tract from esophagus to cloaca (my favourite part as that is where the prey items and parasites are!), both kidneys (again we reserachers share these), and the left lung. Not much is left inside after this. We also take some blood samples on some filter paper, or nobuto strips.

Next we move on to the tissues that are entered into the National Specimen Bank, the leg, wing and the head. The Specimen Bank is located at the National Wildlife Research Center and we try to contribute to it whenever we can. The Specimen bank is exactly as it sounds, a bank that stores tissues. The idea is that we bank samples, and then in the future when a new chemical of concern is identified, or a new technique to study something is developed, we have historic samples that can be used to study changes over time without needing a time machine to travel back and get the samples that you wished you had. By the end of the all the bags, envelopes and jars that you can see on the floor are full of samples and labelled with the bird specific number that follows all samples from this bird into the various coolers, databases and labs these samples will go to.

So, all in all, for most birds we have 4 swabs, 2 weights, 4 measurements, 3 feather samples, 1 blood sample and 9 tissue samples, which gives us a grand total of 23 samples from one bird. By the end, not only are all the bags full of samples, labelled and ready to go, but most of the students have had a good time, if I am lucky I have piqued a few interests, even to the point that some students pull out phones to photograph the crazy things their teachers let them do today.

After the gastro-intestinal tract is removed (like the one pictured above) I can then check to see what food items are inside, and most importantly, look for worms! It is these little guys that I have come here for. You can see one of the larger species that we find in the ducks pictured below.  The worms are mostly all body, but you can see heads (or scolexes) sticking up. The goal is to open the birds up fresh and get the worms while they are still alive (yes, alive as in still moving) to preserve them for identification purposes. Believe it or not the way you differentiate between species in intestinal worms is by counting hooks and spines on the scolex, so although these small heads don’t look like much, it is these small intact samples that we are working so hard to collect this year.

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