Southern birds make themselves at home in warmer eastern Arctic

The hills are alive with the sound of robins


When Dave Boileau was out on a walk Monday evening near his home in Iqaluit's Happy Valley, he saw a sign of spring that's usually reserved for the South: a pair of chubby, red-breasted robins.

Boileau, who always brings a camera with him on his walks, snapped photos of the birds before they flew off singing.

"It was kind of neat," Bouleau said. "I thought they were snow buntings – before I noticed the red."

This isn't the first time that robins have been spotted in Iqaluit.

During the summer of 1999, robins nested near the beach below Happy Valley. These robins, numbering at least two adults and a juvenile, were seen several times near the Iqaluit cemetery and along the walking trail to Apex.

Since then, robin sightings have come from as far away as Baker Lake, Kugluktuk, Arviat and Rankin Inlet.

Robins have also been sighted along the Ungava Bay coast of Nunavik, where they are known as "ikkariliit" (a name that echoes the sound of the robin's song).

Robins generally migrate north along with average temperatures of 2.2 C. Thanks to warming temperatures in south Baffin, this means robins can now reach Iqaluit in time to successfully breed.

The American robin, which scientists call Turdus migratorius, usually breeds as far north as Alaska and across Canada south of the tree line.

Some robins don't migrate at all, but those that do may expand their ranges if they find adequate food in a new place.

Their expansion into the Eastern Arctic may lead to changes in maps detailing the robin's range. Most bird population maps and reference books show there are no robins at all in Nunavut or Nunavik.

Over the past year, several other unusual bird sightings have been reported around the circumpolar world, such as house sparrows in northern Alaska and a Chinese pond heron in Finland. Last summer, a belted kingfisher was seen in Cambridge Bay, about 800 kilometres north of its normal range.

Birds have also shown up at the wrong time. Birds like robins and ducks that would normally fly south from Scandinavia were seen there last December – long after snow usually drives them south.

Warmer climate conditions that disrupt the biological clocks of migratory species may be to blame. These cause many birds to mis-time their migrations or to stop migrating at all as changes between seasons become less clear.

In Iqaluit, robins appear to be putting down roots. That's because when robins sing, their song functions as a territorial declaration and means they've set up housekeeping there.

Robins breed from April to August, usually above ground. In Rankin Inlet, a pair nested under a house support. A robin's nest is usually constructed of woven grass and holds four to five light blue eggs.

Female robins sit on the eggs for 12 to 14 days and will rarely leave the nest for more than five to 10 minutes at a time.

A male robin has a bright red chest, a black head, white eye rings, a yellow bill, a black and white-streaked throat, and grey back.

The female's colouring is somewhat duller. The robins, fairly large birds, are about 25 centimetres long from beak to tail.

Their preferred diet consists of blossoms, insects and berries, and they can get quite plump when food is abundant.

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