March 28, 2008

The red, red Koyapigaktoruk comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along

Filed under: Adaptation, Animals, Arctic, Polar

One of the most well-known and beloved harbingers of spring is the appearance of our feathered friend, the red-breasted robin. And as is the case with virtually every other cute species, it is the subject of climate change speculation from time to time. But in the robin’s case, it doesn’t surround global warming pushing the robin to extinction. Quite the contrary, global warming is expanding the robin’s range into never-before-seen-territory.

How is this bad news, you may wonder? Well the creative minds behind the global-warming-makes-all-things-worse mantra must have been working overtime, but finally, they did manage to come with a good one—the appearance of robins in high northerly latitudes is a sign the global warming is impinging upon the Earth’s sacred Arctic regions, and robbing them of their uniqueness. Case and point, there is no Eskimo word for ‘robin.’

Apparently, this picture seemed to play well with some folks, including Senator John McCain who seems to have had, at least at one time, an unusual interest (seeing that he is the Senator from Arizona) in Arctic matters. In fact, back in 2004, after a hearing on the subject that he organized as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he was quoted by Andrew Revkin, science writer at the New York Times as being particularly disturbed by the rapid pace of warming in the Arctic adding, as way of an illustration, “The Inuit language for 10,000 years never had a word for robin, and now there are robins all over their villages.”

Horrors of horrors, robins all over the place!

Always interested in a good global warming hook, the press was all over this. In fact, the BBC was so enamored with the idea that they titled their program looking at climate change in the Arctic “No Word for Robin: Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic.”

Alas, as with most over-simplified global warming claptrap, more thought goes into coming up with the alarmist concept than in actually looking into whether or not it is true (look no further than our last World Climate Report for another example—this one about global warming killing frogs).

In this case of the pronounced lack of an Inuit word for robin, we came upon the contrary evidence while thumbing back through some old scientific journal articles on Arctic climate in the local university library. It turns out though, that we could have remained in the comfy confines of our office and avoided the CO2 emissions produced by our journey to the library and the descent into the stuffy journal stacks, because the damning evidence is also freely available on-line.

The article that caught our eye was titled “The Naming of Birds by Nunamiut Eskimo” by Laurence Irving of the Arctic Health Research Center of the U.S. Public Health Service in Anchorage, Alaska. It appeared in the March 1953 (Vol. 6, pp. 35-43) issue of the aptly-named journal Arctic (available as a pdf here). In the article, Irving describes his time spent among the Nunamiut Eskimo living in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska comparing English names for birds with the Nunamiut Eskimo names of the birds they encountered. Irving believes that the Eskimo names were from usage of older Nunamiut people and not recent additions. In Irving’s article, he provides the complete list of some 103 bird species.

And, what will obviously come as a surprise to some including Sen. McCain and the BBC producers (not to mention New York Times’ readers and BBC viewers), included among Irving’s list is the Nunamiut Eskimo word for ‘robin.’ For those interested it is “Koyapigaktoruk”—apparently a derivative of the sound of the robin’s song. Irving designates the robin’s status in the region as “NM” for “nesting” and “migrant.”

Further, in his article Irving refers to an earlier compilation of Eskimo names for birds, “The most complete list of Eskimo bird names for this part of Alaska so far published” that can be found in the book My Life with the Eskimo by V. Stefansson published in 1913. As it so happens, the contents of this book are accessible through If you visit the link , and enter the search term “robin” and read the contents of page 493, you will see a description of where robins have been sighted in the Canadian Arctic prior (obviously) to 1913, including along the far northern coast. Accompanying these location descriptions are the word for ‘robin’ in several other Eskimo tongues, including (phonetically) “Kre-ku-ak’tu-yok” (Mackenzie Eskimo) and “Shab’wak” (Alaskan Eskimo).

So, as it turns out, there are plenty of Eskimo words for robin that have existed for a long time and in languages that are spread among bands of Inuit all across the North American Arctic—and it is all plain to see with only a few clicks of the mouse along the information superhighway of the internet.

Thus, another cute (and ill-founded) global warming scare story bites the dust.

Stay tuned in the days ahead for yet another episode of Global Warming Myth Busters brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood World Climate Report.

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