Global warming brings red-breasted robins to Iqaluit

Thanks to global warming, new avian visitors arrived in Iqaluit this summer.


IQALUIT — Well-known everywhere in southern Canada for its brightly coloured red breast, the robin is now showing up in Iqaluit.

“The first time we saw one was near the beginning of June. We couldn’t believe it!” said Brenda Mowbray.

Mowbray, a resident of Iqaluit for more than 20 years, lives down by the beach next to Iqaluit’s cemetery.

Mowbray maintains a bird feeder that ordinarily attracts birds commonly found in the eastern Arctic, so 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,” Mowbray said.

Iqaluit’s robins, numbering at least two adults and a juvenile, have also been seen several times since then near the cemetery and along the walking trail to Apex.

The distinctive 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 around 25 cm. from beak to tail.

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

Rare in the Arctic

One of the best known birds in North America, robins return to northern latitudes with the first warm spring weather, when temperatures rise above freezing. But rarely are robins ever found in the Arctic.

Most bird population maps and reference books robins aren’t found north of the treeline. The American Robin, whose species is called Turdus migratorius, usually breeds north to Alaska and across Canada south of the treeline.

Yet that could be changing, as warmer temperatures in the Arctic open up new ranges for robins.

Dr. André Dhont, the director of bird populations at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, said 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.

Scientists have noted birds and butterflies moving North in response to warmer weather in Europe and Great Britain.

Dhont said that many robins don’t migrate at all, but those that do often end up in new environments where they are able to thrive.

“Some birds lose their way. They don’t go where they’re expected to go,” Dhont said.

Robins in Kangirsuk

The robins spotted in Iqaluit could have headed North for this reason. Robins were also reportedly seen in Kangirsuk in northern Quebec earlier this year.

“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.”

Other bird population changes, such as deformed chickadees in Alaska or house finches with infected eyes that the Cornell Laboratory hears about are much more troubling.

Dhont termed the robins’ move to Iqaluit “ambitious” and “novel.”

“These little events in a large context become interesting,” Dhont said.

If Iqaluit’s robins manage to safely return to the South, Dhont said that they may come back next spring.

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