Like an iceberg, 1999 cont.: “Robins in the Arctic”
Here’s a story that cropped up everywhere after I wrote it in 1999 — about birds that shouldn’t be found on Baffin Island.
Like brain surgery in Nunavik, robins didn’t seem to fit with anyone’s vision of the Arctic — and a well-known United States politician even claimed that Inuit have no word for robin (a claim that turned out to be false.)
“The Inuit language for 10,000 years never had a word for robin, and now there are robins all over their villages,” said Sen. John McCain.
Recognized everywhere in the South for their brightly coloured red breasts, robins first showed up in Iqaluit in 1999. That’s after the birds had already started to appear in Nunavik, where they were called ikkariliit, a name that echoed the sound of the robin’s song.
This robin is singing its heart out in Iqaluit. (PHOTO/ NUNATSIAQ NEWS)
In June 1999, Iqaluit’s robins, numbering at least two adults and a juvenile, were seen several times since then near the cemetery and along the walking trail to Apex.
“The first time we saw one was near the beginning of June. We couldn’t believe it!” said Brenda Mowbray.
In 1999, Mowbray, a resident of Iqaluit for more than 20 years, lived by the beach next to the community’s cemetery. She maintained a bird feeder that ordinarily attracted birds, like snow buntings, commonly seen in the eastern Arctic.
The first visit by a male robin caught Mowbray and her husband off guard.
“We were amazed that it came. It looked as if it was foraging for nest materials,” she said.
Among the best known birds in North America, robins generally return to northern latitudes with the first warm spring weather, when temperatures rise above freezing.
But most bird population maps and reference books in 1999 say that robins aren’t supposed to even be found north of the tree line. The American robin, whose species is called Turdus migratorius, usually breeds north to Alaska and across Canada.
Yet it looked like that could be changing in 1999, as warmer temperatures in the North opened up new ranges for robins.
Dr. André Dhont, director of bird populations at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., told me that migrations enable birds or insects to adapt to climate change.
“We see this in a variety of animal groups where there is a response to global warming,” said Dhont.
A robin in Kuujjuaq where the grass is turning green in early June. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Scientists had already noted birds and butterflies moving North in response to warmer weather in Europe and Great Britain.
But many robins don’t migrate at all. Those that do often end up in new environments where they can thrive.
“Some birds loose their way. They don’t go where they’re expected to go,” Dhont said.
The robins spotted in Iqaluit could have headed north for this reason, he suggested.
“That’s how bird ranges expand,” Dhont said. “You might say it’s an adaptive mistake. Those birds are more likely to respond to rapid change in the environment. They are more likely to have offspring. If you reach a place where there is food and no one else is there, you’re in excellent shape.”
Dhont called the robins’ move to Iqaluit “ambitious” and “novel”— and, for many, Iqaluit’s robins became a memorable sign that the planet’s climate is changing.
By 2014, robins and other southern birds were no longer infrequent visitors to Nunavut, with sightings reported as far north as Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island.
Climate change also brought skunks and moose to Kuujjuaraapik and air conditioners to Kuujjuaq, where the northern Quebec municipality bought 10 air conditioners in 2006 to cope with the summer heat inside the new town hall.
Reported first in the Nunatsiaq News, this bit of news led to headlines in other media like “Air Conditioning for Eskimos as the Arctic Warms Up.”
You can even find a robin in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (PHOTO/ NUNATSIAQ NEWS)
Like an iceberg continues May 29.
You can read earlier instalments here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”
Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”
Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”
Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”
Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers on the pulpit”
Like an iceberg, 1998, “Bearing gifts”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “At the top of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “A bad week”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont.: more from “A bad week”
Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “Memories”
Like an iceberg, 1999, “The avalanche”
Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “An exorcism, followed by a penis cutting”
Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., more on “the Avalanche”