Old Crow birds may offer climate change clues

Erin Linklater studies political science at McGill University, but this summer she's taking an adventure in biology and history. Linklater works as a summer student in the heritage branch of the Vuntut Gwitchin government in Old Crow.

Erin Linklater studies political science at McGill University, but this summer she’s taking an adventure in biology and history.

Linklater works as a summer student in the heritage branch of the Vuntut Gwitchin government in Old Crow. Last month she took a two-week field trip to the Old Crow Flats to study bird populations.

“It was really great for me because I got to be in my traditional territory. Particularly, the areas where we went are the lakes where my grandparents would have trapped,” said Linklater.

Dave Mossop, professor emeritus with the Yukon Research Centre, led a team of three student research assistants, including Linklater.

The group hiked and paddled through the flats to look for and record the bird species who have come to lay their nests.

“It was the best boot camp I’ve ever done,” said Linklater.

The project has deep roots.

Brandon Kyikavichik, a heritage technician working for the Vuntut Gwitchin government, uncovered a scientific article from the 1960s that listed 91 bird names in Gwich’in as recorded by former chief Joe Kyikavichik.

It helped that the names were written by a fluent and literate native speaker of Gwitch’in, but the orthography system used in the 60s is different from the one used today.

Brenda Kay, a fluent Gwitch’in speaker familiar with both the old and the new orthography, deciphered the list of bird names and translated them into modern Gwitch’in.

A group of local experts on the language, the birds and the land came together to help understand the meaning of the bird names.

Megan Williams, a heritage worker who helped coordinate the project, said that there was so much information about the birds hidden within their names.

“The word might mean ‘this is the bird that leaves last,’ or ‘it’s the one that shows up first,’ or there’s one that’s called the rain caller, it’s the one that indicates that it’s going to rain.”

Beyond the meaning of the names, the elders began to tell stories about birds they don’t see anymore, or ones whose habits and patterns have changed.

Williams decided that they needed more information about what is out there.

Mossop has studied birds in the Yukon for over 40 years.

In the 1970s he conducted a research trip in the Old Crow Flats to survey the bird populations.

The Vuntut Gwitchin government hired Mossop to return to the flats this summer and find out how much has changed.

“Birds are fascinating indicator species because they’re so dependent on everything that’s happening in the system,” he said.

In June, Mossop took Linklater and two other students to the flats to look for birds, eggs and nests. In particular, they were interested in the timing of hatching.

“Timing of events is so important, in particular in the North where there’s a very tight schedule,” said Mossop.

Surveying birds is no walk in the park. The team hiked for two days with 500 pounds of gear to their field camp.

From there they had to battle bears, bugs and tundra to get themselves and their canoes across portages in search of the lakes that Mossop had visited 40 years earlier, some of which simply don’t exist any more.

“The flats are very dynamic. The lakes drain and they refill. Some of our best lakes had drained,” said Mossop.

The dramatic changes to the environment were no surprise to Mossop, but some of the early findings were more alarming.

“It almost looks like there’s some species missing, which is quite distressing,” he said.

The researchers won’t be able to say anything for sure until they’ve conducted more field work and have had more time to look at the data, Mossop said.

Mossop returned to the flats this week for a second field trip, this time by helicopter. He will stay for about ten days.

Next year, he will repeat the field work to get a sense of how things are changing, year over year.

Knowledge of what is happening on the land is important, but so is training the young people of Old Crow to collect that knowledge and learn to use it, said Mossop.

Linklater, who grew up in Whitehorse, said she has learned a lot about the importance of the animals and the land to the Gwitchin people.

She is completing a politics course this summer through distance education and will write about her experience working in heritage.

Linklater wants to explore why it is important on a political level to be able to channel resources into the protection of heritage.

But the importance of her work goes beyond politics and academics. Mostly, it’s important to the community.

“It’s pretty funny when you come back into town and everyone hears that you’ve been in Crow Flat, they’re just so excited,” said Linklater. “It’s just so important for people to know that you’ve been out on the land for a little while.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at