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American robins take up residence in the Arctic

By Molly Loomis

Long regarded as a haven for migratory birds from around the world, the Arctic is increasingly playing host to a growing list of southern species never before seen in the North’s colder climes.

On a recent expedition to the National Petroleum Reserve’s Utukok River, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) encountered dozens of American robins amongst the Arctic’s famous summer avian aggregation.


An American robin, not previously considered an Arctic bird, sings from a willow bough along the Arctic’s Utukok River.

Photo courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society  

“It felt really raw to actually be seeing evidence of species moving northward probably because of climate change,” says Jodi Hilty, director of WCS North America. “I’ve seen studies, but to actually see it took me aback.”


While rafting down the Utukok, Hilty and colleague Steve Zack were stunned to hear the familiar sing-song call associated with parks and backyards throughout America. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed that it was indeed a male robin desperately looking for a mate.

His song wasn’t in vain. Another five miles down river, the team floated by a thicket of alders teeming with the ruddy red birds.

Read more about the American robin. 

“It was a density like what you would find in Mom and Pop America–with white picket fences and green lawns,” says Zack. “We were in the thick of it.”

Just last spring fellow scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had told Zack about a robin sighting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 300 miles to the east of the Utukok. But Zack had never heard of a sighting in the National Petroleum Reserve [NPR-A] where he has spent the last six years conducting ornithological research.

Because of their ease of mobility, birds are among the first species to respond to changes in the environment that effect temperature, food and habitat availability. Traditionally, the American robin’s range extends from Central Mexico all the way to the northern edge of the boreal forest, which peters out just above the Arctic Circle.

“This is certainly not a bird ever characterized as being an Arctic breeding bird,” says Zack.

But robins were not the only species to surprise the scientists. Harlequin ducks and white-crowned sparrows feeding amongst a group of red polls were also spotted. Like the robin, both were well beyond their traditional summertime turf in the boreal forest.

White-crowned Sparrow on Utukok I.jpg

White-crowned sparrows, which traditionally can be found breeding south of the Brooks Range, have been spotted in the far North.

Photos courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society

Much of the reason birds are attracted to the NPR-A is the peace and quiet that comes with such remoteness—a necessity for activities like mating, nesting and raising their young. After all, the NPR-A’s 23.5 million acres constitute the largest tract of undeveloped land in the United States.

But the downside is that because places like the Utukok River are so far beyond the beaten path, there is little scientific data available on the region beyond population surveys of a few native species.

“This area is so remote that it hasn’t been subject to the same surveys that other places have experienced,” explains Zack, who after the Utukok expedition learned that in fact rafters had previously seen robins in the region but never reported them. It is not unusual for 300 to 400 studies to occur over the course of the year in a place like Yellowstone National Park, an area one-sixth the size of the NPR-A. By comparison, half a dozen studies might be conducted in the NPR-A.


Birds like the red poll and red-breasted merganser, both of which breed in the Arctic, may deal with increasing competition for food from southern species.

Photo courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society  

Because so little is known about the region, both Zack and Hilty are reluctant to say that their sightings of the American robin, White-crowned sparrow or harlequin ducks are unequivocal harbingers of climate change. Without data, neither Zack nor Hilty wants to rule out the possibility of a unique explanation for each occurrence. But Zack says the birds’ presence is consistent with predictions of what a warming Arctic will look like.

“It’s collectively a signal of a changing Arctic,” he says. “When we start to see birds that have leap-frogged the entire boreal forest then that means the deck is going to be totally reshuffled.”


A group of harlequin ducks, a species popular with hunters throughout North America, is spotted swimming far north of its traditional southern range.

Photo courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society  

Thirty-foot alder stands lining the river, like the one the robins sang from, were also an undeniable sign of change to the scientists. Lack of thick undergrowth indicated the likelihood that the alders were relatively recent arrivals from more southern climes. Zack suspects that the proliferation of woody vegetation, like alder, is enabling species like the American robin to move northward.

“They need park-like settings where you have a band of vegetation that’s tall. They fly out from that to feed out in open areas and retreat back into it,” says Zack. “They need that juxtaposition and the Arctic is adding the woody vegetation to the already open space, making it robin-like habitat.”

Dark, black box

Zack says trying to make predictions about how climate change will affect the Arctic feels like looking into a dark, black box. The uncertainties are exponentially greater than the certainties.

But one thing is clear—relative to most other ecosystems the Arctic has never been known for its abundance. Increasing species diversity and population may lead to problems of supply and demand. Robins could outcompete shrikes for insects and ptarmigan for large fruits like bear berries. White-crowned sparrows and red polls may have to fight over willow fruits and insects. Harlequin ducks, mergansers and long-tailed ducks all subsist on the same kinds of fish and clams.

Other potential risks include disease transmission from newly arrived southern species and changes in the predator-prey balance.

Only time will tell if southern species like those seen on the Utukok River have taken up permanent residence and what might follow in their wake.


Molly Loomis lives in Teton Valley, Idaho near the borders of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A contributor to Sierra, Backpacker and Outside magazines, her work focuses on environmental issues occurring around the world. She is a recent recipient of the Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellowship. Read her blog, Wild Matter


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