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Duck tales: 15,000 wings tell the story

The Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre looked like it was under quarantine on Friday.Its floors were covered in broad sheets of plastic and…

The Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre looked like it was under quarantine on Friday.

Its floors were covered in broad sheets of plastic and biologists wandered around wearing white gloves and lab coats.

But the precautions weren’t there to contain a virus or toxin. They were controlling the spread of feathers — a few of which still managed to flutter out the front door.

Friday marked the final day of the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Wingbee. It’s an annual event that brings together ornithology experts, dozens of avid birding volunteers and the wings of more than 15,000 ducks.

The biologists and the birders spend three days examining the clipped appendages to draw conclusions about the state of Canada’s waterfowl.

At the close of the duck hunting season, hunters from across the country clip a wing from their kill and mail it to the Canadian Wildlife Service. The wings are posted in special envelopes noting the date the bird was shot and its province or territory of origin.

The survey looks at the birds’ age and sex and the geographic distribution of each species.

Biologists use Wingbee results, along with answers from two questionnaires sent out randomly to permitted hunters, to create an overall picture of bird populations across the country.

Then they use that information to set national bag and possession regulations.

“So if one species in the Yukon was in trouble, and they stay in one specific marsh then we could restrict hunting in that area,” said national harvest survey biologist Michel Gendron.

Over three days last week, the experts and volunteers sorted more than 15,000 wings, said Gendron, who is based in Ottawa, but came to Whitehorse to co-ordinate the ‘bee.

Every January or February since 1967 wingbees have been held in a different location. This is the first time one has come north of 60.

Bringing the ‘bee to the north is a boon to local birders, said Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Debbie Vandewetering, who was also the wingbee’s local co-ordinator.

“You get to see specimens we don’t normally see up here,” she said, while sorting through a box full of wings from different species, like sea ducks.

And finding volunteers for the project was no problem, said Vandewetering, who co-ordinated 36 local birders to volunteer on the project from the Yukon Bird Club, Parks Canada, Ducks Unlimited and the Yukon government.

“Most of the people we had here were avid birders, so they knew what to look for.”

On the final day of the ‘bee, only the most elusive wings were left on the tables.

The room smelled like a high school biology class.

White-gloved biologists hunched over the specimens and used their fingers to fan out the feathers, looking for any signs that might help in identification.

Generally the experts can tell the age of a bird by their feathers.

Older birds tend to have feathers with raggedy and notched edges, while juvenile feathers tend to be pointed at the ends.

If just one feather on a wing is a juvenile feather, then the bird is classified as a juvenile bird.

“You can have almost all adult feathers and then find one immature feather, and it’s an immature bird,” said Vandewetering.

They use colour and feather patterns to identify the sex of the birds.

In some species there are very subtle differences between the sexes.

In others, it’s more pronounced.

For example, a male mallard has a white bar of plumage that is only as long as the purple bar, while a female’s white markings extend far beyond the purple.

The Yukon’s duck-hunting season runs from September 1 to October 31.

Ottawa sets the daily bag limit at eight, and the possession limit at 24, except in northern Yukon where 25 ducks may be taken per day with no possession limit.

The biologists don’t have a lot of data from the Yukon because fewer hunters buy game bird permits, said Gendron.

It’s partially because many are aboriginal hunters, who don’t need permits.

And because of the climate, the territory’s hunters only have access to the birds for a few months each year.