Published April 09, 2008
I know it’s here when swarms of red-breasted robins descend on my Virginia farm, rooting for every worm that survived winter.
No one gains much political traction writing about global warming’s threat to turkey buzzards, but robins are cute, so they’re more often the subject of climate change speculation.
Global warming is not pushing the robin to extinction. Au contraire: It’s expanding the robin’s range northward, into places where it's never been seen. Robins are venturing so far north that they’ve even been sighted in the Inuit territory of northern Canada, where, Sen. John McCain tells us, there isn’t even a word for the birds.
Yes, even John McCain has feathered his political nest with the robin’s expansion. Back in 2004, after a hearing McCain organized as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin noted that he was particularly concerned about the rapid warming of the Arctic.
"The Inuit language for 10,000 years never had a word for 'robin,'" McCain lamented, "and now there are robins all over their villages." The BBC even titled a program on arctic warming "No Word for 'Robin': Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic."
What a shame! Pretty little birds invading the Arctic, bringing joy with their whoop of spring!
But, of course, it’s not true. Like the tale of the endangered polar bears that happen to be at or near record population levels, the robin story is yet another climate confabulation. It ranks with the death of frogs in the mountains of Colombia now shown to be caused not by global warming, but by the introduction of fatal fungus on the shoes of concerned ecotourists.
It’s always instructive to consult the wisdom of our elders about climate change, and so I found an article, "The Naming of Birds by Nanamuit Eskimo," by Laurence Irving of the U.S. Public Health Service in Anchorage, Alaska, in a 1953 edition of the refereed journal Arctic.
Irving describes his extensive visits with the people of Northern Alaska, residing in the Brooks Range — the most northerly mountain chain in the United States. He compared English names for birds with the Eskimo names of the ones they encountered.
Irving noted that the bird names were given by the Nanamuit elders. They were no birdie-come-latelys.
Irving’s list brings us the Nanamuit word for "robin": "Koyapigaktoruk." While this may surprise Sen. McCain or the BBC, the Nanamuits saw robins, and this is their phonetic way of describing the tones of an arriving redbreast looking for a mate.
Nesting, and not just some windblown flotsam? Irving designated the robin’s status as "NM," meaning "nesting migrant."
The lack of due diligence on the subject of climate change can be breathtaking. In 1913, Vilhjalmur Stefansson published a book, now available at Amazon.com, called "My Life With the Eskimo." Look it up online and search for "robin," and on page 493 you will find text describing robin sightings, obviously before 1913 (and before global warming), all over the Canadian Arctic.
Stefansson gives the word as "Kre-ku-ak’tu-yok," which sounds suspiciously like the 1953 word given by Irving. That’s the Canadian word. It’s "Shab’wak" in Alaskan Eskimo.
There are plenty of words in Inuit, or Eskimo, describing our red-breasted harbingers of spring. What’s a little disturbing is how the myth of the robin persists, when it is so easy to find the truth.
My minions in Charlottesville informed The Times of the error six months ago. Finally, on April 3, Andrew Revkin posted an acknowledgement on his blog, but no correction in the newspaper itself. We’ve been holding our breath waiting for it to appear in print, only to turn robin's-egg blue.
At the same time, how about a little truth-telling about the hoax of "Warming Island," an islet off Greenland that was — erroneously — thought to be a part of Greenland, connected by land lying beneath the ice.
As Greenland warmed over the last decade, the ice melted and revealed open water underneath, thus giving birth to a "new" island. Climate change enthusiasts claimed the channel between island and mainland had not been revealed for countless millennia.
As it turns out, maps show that Warming Island, indeed, was very much an island a mere 50 years ago, when Greenland, in fact, was warmer than it has been for the last 10 years.
As sure as the robin’s song of spring, we continue to hope that America’s best newspaper (and the BBC) will sing out the truth about climate change and the bob, bob, bobbin’ of the red, red Koyapigaktoruk in the North American Arctic.
Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.