Wildlife in the Field

On this page: General Guidelines | Permits and PermissionsKey Points in Planning a StudyStress factorsTrapping general considerationsMarking general considerationsTransportation of wildlifeField SafetyThe three R’s in wildlife research

Two birds resting on a tree branch outdoors

The general principles on animal care apply equally to wild vertebrates, regardless of whether studies are carried out in the natural habitat of the animal or in the laboratory.

The scientist who utilizes wild vertebrates must constantly guard against becoming simply a "consumer." A return of knowledge and understanding applicable to the species under study constitutes a major justification for their use. Those using wild vertebrates should also recognize the necessity for collaboration amongst wildlife biologists, conservationists, ethnologists, and veterinarians, for the proper definition and subsequent maintenance of a state of well-being for these species.

Because of the diverse types of wild vertebrates used in scientific investigations, most of the information that follows is presented in general rather than species-specific terms but the investigator and personnel in the research group must be familiar with the acceptable practices associated with the species.



The investigator:

  • must correctly identify taxa under study and ensure that those chosen are well suited to answer the question(s) posed must assure that any number of individuals removed from the wild must be kept to the minimum determined by the investigator to be necessary to accomplish the goals of the study.
  • must ascertain the status of the taxon to be studied and ensure that the numbers of animals removed from the wild are kept to the minimum necessary to accomplish the goals of the study or teaching exercise 
  • must have knowledge of all regulations pertaining to the animals under study, obtain all necessary permits for carrying out the proposed studies, and uphold not only the letter, but also the spirit of all regulations pertaining to the species. In Canada, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Game Export Act, provincial Wildlife Acts, and territorial Game Ordinances are especially pertinent 
  • must become familiar with existing knowledge on response of the species to disturbances, sensitivity to capture, restraint, and, when applicable, the requirements for captive maintenance, before undertaking studies on a wild vertebrate. Special concern should be shown for birds and mammals with dependent young. 
  • must be aware of, and prepared to deal with, a wide variety of transmissible diseases and parasites, as well as other dangers associated with wild vertebrates. 


Members of endangered or threatened taxa should neither be removed from the wild (except in collaboration with conservation efforts), nor imported or exported, except in compliance with the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) can provide information on threatened taxa.

No animal should be subjected to unnecessary pain or distress either from capture, physical or chemical restraint, from maintenance in captivity, killing method or as a result of the experimental or observational regime.


Permits and Permissions

A wildlife study implies the need for permits such as:

  • Institutional animal care committee approval
  • Federal permits
  • Provincial/territorial permits
  • Band Council permission
  • Landowner permission
  • Veterinary drug permit
  • Federal Permits
  • Canadian Wildlife Service
  • (CWS)
  • Scientific Permits
  • Species at Risk Permit
  • Access to Federal Lands
  • Hunting Permit
  • CITESPermit

All depending on the research being conducted, a selection of permits must be acquired before experiments may commence.


Key Points in Planning a Study


  • Knowledge of study species
  • Consultation with a veterinarian or other experts
  • Inclusion of a pilot study whenever necessary
  • Use of the least invasive practice possible
  • Minimization of disturbance to animals and habitat 
  • Researchers should be prepared to abandon the study if adverse conditions arise.
  • Measures to prevent detrimental effects on the population
  • Maximize information obtained and reduce impact on individuals
  • Know and minimize causes of stress or discomfort; a distressed animal provides poor data. If nets are used for capture, establish a frequency to inspect (If an animal is taken by a predator, check nets more frequently or close the nets. Ground-dwelling predators – even frogs – can take birds from the lowest tier of the net so raising the net may be adequate to prevent this problem.)
  • If dependent offspring are involved or sensitive species or locations, establish precautions to avoid disruptions (Anti-predator measures are particularly important when trapping at nest sites, both for the trapped birds and the young at the nest.)
  • If releasing the animals, establish a procedural health report to ensure that they are in good health (Most research that requires capture of a wild animal presumes that the individual will be returned to the wild in as close to its original condition as possible. Capture myopathy, also known as cramp or exertional rhabdomyosis, which can result from handling and capture, delays release or may preclude release altogether and may even result in mortality. The course of treatment for capture myopathy potentially involves drugs, nutritional and mineral supplements (vitamin E and selenium), as well as physical therapy and massage.)


Stress factors:

  • Weather
  • Predators
  • Restraint
  • Disease
  • Capture
  • Time of day


Trapping general considerations

  • Evaluation of trapping methods and planned endpoints are essential for everyone participating to participate in beforehand.
  • What are the preferred capture methods? 
  • If using nets, inappropriate mesh size can lead to injury. What safety precautions should be taken when dealing with accidental trapping and equipment?


Marking general considerations

Studies that use marking techniques operate under the assumption that the marking technique does not affect the individual or that the negative impacts from the mark are negligible. It is essential to the welfare of the animals and to the integrity of the research that the marking procedures not adversely affect the behavior, physiology, or survival of individuals.

For a marking procedure to be effective, it should meet as many of the following criteria as

  • The animal should experience no immediate or long-term hindrance or irritation.
  • The marking should be quick and easy to apply.
  • The marking code (digits or colors) should be readily visible and distinguishable.
  • The markings should persist on the animal until research objectives have been fulfilled.
  • The animal should suffer no adverse effects on its behavior, longevity, or social life.
  • Careful records should be made of all aspects of the marking procedure.


Transportation of wildlife

Research protocols and objectives often call for the transport of wildlife from the point of capture to a holding facility or laboratory or to release areas removed from the capture site. Transport should not be undertaken lightly because even minor dislocations may disrupt territoriality, nesting and foraging behavior, or social grouping. Transportation also generates stress. Seek guidance, and especially species-specific information regarding transportation techniques and signs of stress, from experienced personnel, such as zoo personnel, licensed wildlife rehabilitators, or other specialists, whenever possible.


Field Safety

By virtue of the University Health and Safety Mission, associated University policies, and the general provisions of the Quebec Occupational Health and Safety Act, McGill University is committed to taking every reasonable precaution for the health and safety of its employees and students.

Responsibility for safety begins with the individuals involved in the project. The oversight responsibility for safety in field research rests upon the persons who directly supervise and carry out the research. This is reflected in the McGill University Health and Safety Internal Responsibility System, a system that is designed to ensure oversight, responsibility and accountability for health and safety, irrespective of location.

Please visit the Environmental Health and Safety web page for further information and contacts.

Personnel using drugs for wildlife should have current training and inform other members of the team of the risks of human exposure. There should be adequate quantities of applicable reversal drugs on hand in the field if these exist.

Anesthesia of free ranging wildlife may place personnel at risk of injury. Injury can occur from animal attacks, capture equipment, or exposure to potent drugs. Every possible effort must be made to minimize the probability of human injury when undertaking chemical restraint and anesthesia on wildlife. It is the responsibility of the investigator to ensure that personnel have knowledge of current procedures with the subject species and thorough knowledge of the emergency care of personnel exposed to the pharmaceuticals involved. Training for those authorized to use immobilization drugs must include first aid and emergency procedures relevant to the region. Members of the field team must be familiar with and competent in such first aid procedures as may be required in an accidental exposure emergency. Because smaller volumes of drugs are more easily delivered via remote drug delivery systems, most drugs used for wildlife anesthesia are extremely potent and pose significant hazards to the people using them.


The three R’s in wildlife research

Based on a scientific study of humane technique pertaining to research involving laboratory animals, the first principle calls for replacement, which has, in recent years, come to mean replacement with non-animal models such as cells, tissue culture, and computer-based models. This principle has been of some practical application in biomedical research. In wildlife research, of course, animals studied are the objects of the research rather than the subjects. Replacement is rarely an option in wildlife research. Animal ecologists have modeled some aspects of behavioral ecology but at some point, hypotheses developed with models are field-tested to determine the extent to which the model explains behavior of actual animals. When studying endangered species, closely related species are sometimes used. Generally, though, replacement is not an option in wildlife biology.

Reduction – the second principle – calls for methods for obtaining comparable levels of information from the use of fewer animals in scientific procedures or for obtaining more information from a given number of animals so that fewer animals are needed to complete a given research project. The number of animals used should be the minimum that is consistent with the aims of the experiment. Achieving this end requires careful statistical planning. Those who lack adequate training in biostatistics would need to consult with a biostatistician to determine the appropriate number of animals or samples needed for the study. A study with an inadequate sample size that results in the failure of the study or a study that can’t be completed or published has actually increased the number of animals used in research without a gain in knowledge.

The third principle – refinement –entails the use of methods that alleviate or minimize potential pain and distress and that enhance animal well-being. Refinement should be the guiding paradigm for all wildlife research, which entails choosing the method that will generate the information needed while alleviating or minimizing negative impacts. So, for instance, this might entail a reduction in handling time or the selection of alternate means to obtain material for genetic sampling.


End of the section on Wildlife in the Field.

If you are ready to take the test, send an email to the animalcare [at] mcgill.ca (Training Advisor) (the test is requested, received and submitted by email). 

Please note that each participant must make the request using his/her own email account. The participant must identify in which investigator’s lab they are working or the course title for which this test is a requirement (if applicable). 





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