Who put the dead crow in the freezer?

Veterinary Pathologist Dr. Emily Jenkins

Wildlife Researcher, Dr. Emily Jenkins

I realized that we might have an unusual viewpoint on roadkill in our house when the neighbors observed, wide-eyed, as my husband bagged a dead crow in the alley and triumphantly brought it in to the house.

As a wildlife disease researcher and veterinarian, I know that opportunistic examinations of dead wildlife can yield important information when the bodies are examined by pathologists, like those who work at the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre.  So I try to do my bit.

Like the time I was biking into work and came across a guy in a business suit, standing over a dead great horned owl at the base of a tree.  I must have looked a bit disapproving, because he blurted out “I didn’t do it!”  He had his cell phone in his hand, trying to decide who to call (Hoo Dunnit Hotline?)  I bagged it and brought it in, swinging from my handlebars.  Turns out it died of a herpes virus, part of the same group of viruses that cause cold sores in people, but a kind specialized for pigeons.  What’s neat about this virus is that it does very little to pigeons – but can literally drop an unlucky owl that was dining on pigeon, out of a tree, dead.

E.Jenkins1Sometimes what looks like a disease related die-off turns out to be something a little less infectious. Camping out at Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan last summer, we came upon about a hundred dead northern leopard frogs on a dirt road.  This was particularly tragic because this is a rare and declining species in the prairies. Our pathologist friends insisted that we empty out every sandwich bag and recruit every pooper scoop bag to fill with the rapidly dessicating carcasses.  It was only later that we recalled the massive lightning storm that rattled our rib cages as we slept in our tents the night before.  The frogs had no obvious signs of disease.  We suspect that the road flooded and a nearby lightning strike electrocuted the unlucky frogs caught in the water on the road surface.  So we didn’t discover a new disease causing amphibian die-offs – but we did resolve not to camp on roads in the flatlands!

And sometimes we involve the whole family.  My son was initially thrilled to find mouse footprints all over the snow in the backyard, and then heartbroken when the tracks culminated in a small frozen body in a snowbank just outside the dubious shelter of the unheated garage.  Collecting the body for autopsy made him feel that the death of the mouse had meaning…and for me, I wanted to know if our old-school neighbor had resorted to poisoning pests.  There is a new poison out there (bromethalin) that is highly toxic to dogs, with no antidote, and it was only luck that our dog hadn’t found the carcass first.  Turns out it was just a very cold mouse during one of our -40 C cold snaps, which was good news for neighborly relations.

Nowadays, most people experience wildlife in the ways I’ve described – on their daily commute, while recreating in the outdoors, and even in their backyards.  While we would all prefer to enjoy them alive, anyone can submit dead wildlife to the CCWHC, if it is collected safely (use a bag, maybe even 2!)  And if you take the time to fill out a form, you can get a copy of the report telling you the cause of death.  From the CCWHC viewpoint, they don’t want every sparrow that hits a window, so it’s a good idea to call first to see if the species or the circumstances warrant further investigation (1 800 567 2033).   This service allows citizens to be part of the bigger picture in conducting surveillance for wildlife diseases, and allows wildlife disease researchers to have eyes and ears everywhere that people go… So keep a plastic bag on hand at all times, even in the city.

As for the crow, it’s about the right time of year for West Nile virus – or maybe it just ran afoul of the power lines.  You never know ‘til you look…

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