'Trend really positive' as Wood Buffalo whooping cranes counted

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This August, 37 whooping crane fledglings were counted in Wood Buffalo National Park – up from just 24 fledglings last year.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers, a whooping crane conservation organization, reported the Parks Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service count last week on its website.

Parks Canada was unable to confirm the numbers to Cabin Radio following requests on August 6 and August 14, saying the process to approve the numbers for media is different.

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The endangered cranes that nest in Wood Buffalo are the last natural wild migratory flock in the world.

In late May, according to Friends of the Wild Whoopers, Parks Canada counted 97 nests. This is the second-highest number of nests recorded – in 2017, Parks counted 98 nests and a record 63 fledglings.

Last year, when a very rainy season likely meant fewer fledglings survived, 87 nests were counted.

"There's a natural year-to-year fluctuation in the number of breeding pairs, but the trend is really positive overall," said Rhona Kindopp, manager of resource conservation with Parks Canada in Fort Smith. She said 2018 was a "down year" but still within the variation expected.

"Whooping cranes start breeding when they're about four years old. About five to six years ago, there was a boom in the number of fledglings and so those fledgings have been getting to breeding ages recently in the last couple of years," said Kindopp.

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"I think that's why the numbers have been higher than what we'd seen a decade ago."

Whooping cranes typically lay two eggs per nest. In the 1940s there were only 22 wild whooping cranes left in the world. Now, the long-term goal is to establish 1,000 whooping cranes in North America by 2035.

In February 2018, when a total population count was performed by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas – where the birds winter – the population had risen to 505.

Wintering numbers for 2019 have not yet been released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Including birds in captivity, the North American population exceeds 800.

In Wood Buffalo, Kindopp explained, Parks Canada counts only pairs and fledglings because the birds are more spread out. Birds not of breeding age head farther north, and so the cranes occupy a huge area. In Texas they stay closer together, making it easier to tally total numbers.

The whooping cranes will start their migration in September or October, heading 4,000 km south.

"They're waiting for the ability of their young to be strong enough to make that long journey back," said Kindopp.

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