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Chapter 1 - Recording and submitting specimen history data

Author: J. Christian Franson


History can be defined as a chronological record of significant events. In wildlife disease investigations, determining the history or background of a problem is the first significant step toward establishing a diagnosis. The diagnostic process is often greatly expedited by a thorough history accompanying specimens submitted for laboratory evaluation. This information is also important for understanding the natural history or epizootiology of disease outbreaks, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the history after the outbreak has occurred. Detailed field observations during the course of a die-off and an investigation of significant events preceding it also provide valuable information on which to base corrective actions. The most helpful information is that which is obtained at the time of the die-off event by a perceptive observer.

What Information Should Be Collected

What seems irrelevant in the field may be the key to a diagnosis; therefore, be as thorough as possible. Avoid preconceptions that limit the information collected and that may imperceptibly bias the investigation. A sample specimen history form, which lists some categories of information that are helpful, is in Appendix A. A good description of unusual behavior or appearance, if any, an accurate list of what species were affected, and the number of animals that died are critical pieces of information. Send specimens and the written history to the laboratory as soon as possible. Photographs can be helpful if they convey specific information, such as environmental conditions during a die-off and the appearance of sick wildlife or gross lesions. (Figs 1.1, 1.2)

Figure 1.1 Examples of poor and good photography to record environmental conditions associated with wildlife disease problems.
Click Photo for full-page view(A) Landscape photo displays topography and presence of a power line that may or may not be involved with the mortality event. Neither of the major factors involved with this event can be clearly seen. Click Photo for full-page view(B) Closeup photograph clearly shows both the species involved and the peanuts that proved to be contaminated with the mycotoxins that were the source of the problem (aflatoxicosis). Click Photo for full-page view(C) Closeup photograph of sick bird clearly illustrates clinical signs of wing and neck droop; and the snow indicates the season.


Figure 1.2 The observer may use photography to illustrate field observations associated with wildlife morbidity and mortality.
Click Photo for full-page view(A) For example, when sick birds are left undisturbed or approached quietly, they often remain motionless along the water’s edge with their heads hanging down. Click Photo for full-page view(B) When startled, these birds may attempt to escape by propelling themselves with their wings across water... Click Photo for full-page view(C) ... or land ... Click Photo for full-page view(D) This bird has lost the use of its legs, a common occurrence with avian botulism (Botulism) and certain toxins such as organophosphorus or carbamate compounds.

The following basic information is helpful for diagnosing the cause and assessing the severity of a waterfowl health problem.

Environmental Factors

Determine if the start of mortality coincided with any unusual event. Environmental changes such as storms, precipitation, and abrupt temperature changes are potential sources of stress that can contribute to disease outbreaks. A food shortage may degrade the condition of birds and increase their susceptibility to disease. Water-level changes in an area may concentrate or disperse birds, alter the accessibility of toxins in food or water, or cause an invertebrate die-off that could lead to an avian botulism (Avian Botulism) outbreak. Attempt to determine whether or not biting insect populations have increased or if such insects are present, because some insects are carriers of blood-borne infections in waterfowl.

The quality of the water used as a source for an impoundment may contribute to disease or mortality; for example, poor water quality may contribute to avian botulism (Avian Botulism) or may be a primary cause of mortality if water contamination by toxic materials and substances such as oil (oil), which can affect the integrity of feathers, is severe. Record recent pesticide applications and other habitat or crop management practices as well as previous disease problems in the area.

Estimating Disease Onset

When estimating the onset of disease, consider: (1) the earliest date when on-site activities could have resulted in the detection of sick or dead birds, if they were present, and the actual date when diseased birds were first seen, and (2) the proportion of fresh carcasses compared with the number of scavenged and decomposed carcasses. The abundance and types of scavengers and predators can be used to predict how long carcasses remain in the area. Other useful information about the onset of mortality can be gained from noting any differences in plumage, including stage of molt, if present, between live and dead birds. Size differences between live and dead nestlings and fledglings may also provide useful information for comparison with known growth rates. Also, air, water, and soil temperatures will affect the speed of decomposition and they should be considered in assessing how long birds have been dead. Include these observations in the history.

Species Affected

Much can be learned by knowing what species are dying. Those species present but unaffected are especially important to note, because some diseases infect a narrow host range and others infect a wide variety of species. For example, duck plague (Duck Plague) affects only ducks, geese, and swans (anseriformes), but avian cholera (Avian Cholera) affects many additional species of water birds as well. Species with similar feeding habits may be dying as a result of exposure to toxins, while birds with different food requirements remain unaffected.


Some disease agents may kill young birds but leave adults unaffected because of age related disease resistance; other diseases kill birds of all ages, although young or old birds may be more susceptible because of additional stress placed on these age groups. When toxins are involved, differences in food habits may result in exposure of young birds, but not of adult birds, or vice versa.


Sex differences in mortality may be apparent in colonial nesters where females are incubating eggs, or in other situations where the sexes are segregated.

Number Sick/Number Dead

The longer a disease takes to kill, the more likely it is that significant numbers of sick birds will be found. For example, more sick birds will probably be observed during an avian botulism (Botulism) die-off than during an outbreak of a more acute disease such as avian cholera.

Clinical Signs

When observing sick birds, describe the clinical signs in as much detail as possible. Include any abnormal physical features and describe unusual behaviors, such as a sick bird’s response to being approached. Photographs (Fig. 1.2) of various behaviors or conditions associated with a disease can be especially useful and should be included with the history.

Population At Risk

Try to determine what species, and in what numbers, are in the vicinity of the die-off. This information can provide clues about the transmissibility of disease, and it may be useful during control efforts.

Population Movement

Record recent changes in the number of birds in the area, as well as the species present. In particular note the presence of endangered species. If bird numbers have increased, try to determine where they came from; if bird numbers have decreased, attempt to determine where they have gone. This can often be accomplished when population movements are being monitored for census, hunting forecasts, and other purposes. State, Federal, and private refuge personnel and other natural resources managers are good primary sources of information.

Specific Features Of Problem Areas

Describe the location of a die-off so that a relatively specific area can be identified on a road map. Also include any available precise location data, such as global positioning information or data that will facilitate entering of specific locations into geographical information system databases. Describe the problem area in terms that are sufficiently graphic so that someone with no knowledge of it can visualize its major characteristics, such as topography, soil, vegetation, climate, water conditions, and animal and human use.

Example description of die-off location

The problem area is a 10-acre freshwater pond located in Teno County, North Carolina, 1/2 mile east of County KV, 5 miles north of Highway 43. The pond has an average water depth of 6–12 feet and a sandy substrate. Vegetation around the pond border is bullbrush and reed canary grass. The surrounding uplands are essentially flat for one-half mile in all directions and lie fallow, covered with grasses and some shrubs. The area is coastal with enough relief to prevent saltwater intrusion into the pond even during major storms. Weather for the past 2 weeks has been pleasant and there has been no precipitation. Daytime temperatures are currently in the mid-80s (F) and evening temperatures in the 70s. This is an isolated body of freshwater with good clarity, and sustains several hundred waterfowl, gulls, and small numbers of wading birds and shorebirds, and healthy warm water fish and amphibian populations. Cattle graze the adjacent area. There are no residential or industrial buildings within 1 mile of the site. Human visitation is frequent for bird watching, fishing, and hiking. Companion animals such as dogs are allowed on the area.

Identify where sick and dead birds are found. Especially note the locations of groups of dead birds and any differences of habitat where dead and sick birds are found. Birds found in agricultural fields may be dying of pesticide exposure, birds with more chronic toxicoses usually seek dense cover, and birds dying of acute diseases may be found in a variety of situations. Check any relation between specific bird use of the area and the location of affected birds, such as roost sites, loafing areas, and feeding sites.

If followup investigations are conducted after specimens have been submitted, summarize the findings and observations of those investigations in a supplemental report to the original history. Maintain a copy of the new report in station files, and provide a copy to the diagnostic laboratory where the specimens were sent. Both reports should contain the dates of the investigations, whether air or ground searches were performed, the number of investigators and the time spent on the investigation, the weather conditions, and the time of day when the site was investigated.

The insight provided by good specimen history data and by field observations is invaluable to disease specialists. This information enhances understanding of the ecology of disease, thereby serving as a basis for developing ways to prevent future die-offs or to reduce the magnitude of losses that might otherwise occur.

J. Christian Franson

Supplementary Reading

  • Wobeser, G.A., 1994, Investigation and management of disease in wild animals: New York, N.Y., Plenum Press, 265 p.

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