A Few Paper Clips and A Couple Million Years
Feeding on caterpillars, beetles, spiders, and spider eggs, the blackpoll warbler will double its body weight to fly 20,000 kilometers from its summer habitat of the Canadian boreal forests nonstop overwater to winter in the Amazon. Challenging our imaginations, this twelve-grams-of-feathers has the longest overwater flight known of any songbird.
Once safely in the Amazon, the blackpoll’s winter nourishment is unexpectedly dependent on particulates of ancient fossils from the African Sahara. Thousands of years ago, fish bodies piled up in the now defunct Mega-lake Chad. Creating a rich bowl of exposed fossil dust, it blows across the Atlantic every year, feeding soluble phosphorous to the terrestrial Amazon, a nutrient vital for photosynthesis.
Fueled by Africa-born phosphorus, though still weighing less than a few paperclips, the blackpoll must again make a 20,000-km sojourn back to the northern breeding grounds come March. To reach these vast boreal forests, it must first pass over coca farms in Colombia and jungle-ensnared Mayan ruins of Guatemala. This half-ounce passerine then makes its way across the marshy FARC rebel-lands of the Darién Gap and over Mexico City’s smog, skirting violent cartels and femicides, before surmounting Trump’s attempts at a border wall into Texas. Stateside, the blackpoll could sail up the Great Plains following the proposed path of the Keystone XL Pipeline, or it may veer easterly around the Gulf Coast, with COVID-rich stops in New Orleans and up to Nashville for hot chicken. Along this route it may encounter a recently declared extinct species, the ivory-billed woodpecker, now teetering on resuscitation. The Ivory-billed, also known as the “Lord God Bird” due to its startling large size that provokes the expression from unsuspecting passersby, was last indisputably seen in Louisiana in 1944. In 2021, this majestic species was declared extinct…well, almost. A few months later, a group of biologists published what they consider to be irrefutable evidence of this species’s persistence, earning it the rightful name of “Grail Bird,” as the search continues.
Some blackpolls may forgo this venture through the deep south altogether, preferring to jump the Gulf of Mexico for a refueling in Miami, the coral city. Here, the seasonal fluctuation that propels the blackpoll encounters a more gruesome ticking clock. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Florida panther once roamed abundantly here, having now lost ninety-five percent of its historic range it is what may be called a “debt species” by conservation biologists. Deemed functionally extinct—meaning its extinction is inevitable but momentarily delayed—the panther’s population is too small to be sustainably viable. It is not long for this world.
In place of once thriving panther habitat are sprouting high-rise condominiums clad in Miami Oolite—a limestone with dramatic displays of extant and extinct fossilized corals, urchins and mollusks. The riprap surrounding these oceanfront constructions, also made of oolite, are used to protect against the scour of climate change induced tropical storms and imminent sea level rise. Ironically, Miami is a metropolis built atop an ancient coral reef (see Pleistocene), with an infrastructure constructed from concrete made of fossilized coral aggregate. Such conundrums of the coral city have spurred another shocking plot twist as they become home to a quickly evolving hybrid coral. Despite the highly acidic and warming waters surrounding this leaching metropolis, the fossil-filled stone provides homes for a new strain of anthropogenic resistant coral. The buildings and the organisms are all coral, extant and extinct simultaneously. These hardy corals, recently discovered by NeoPunk artist and scientist Colin Foord thriving in the busiest shipping lane in the “Cruise Capital of the World,” provide a flummoxing spectacle of nature’s adaptability. They hybridize and adapt to rising heat and polluted runoff within a single generation. Though not a call for celebration, this discovery is a humbling brick through humans’ myopic window of evolution. Preconceptions of the rate of evolutionary change here come face to face with late capitalism’s accelerated dance of extraction and consumption, knowingly rendering us functionally extinct in the process.
Fueled by a plethora of mosquitos, the blackpoll will depart this southern petri dish of speciation. Once firmly inside the Appalachian ridgeline, the blackpoll would slalom between mountain peaks with newfound ease, as many of these mountains have been reduced from mountaintop removal mining. Upon arrival in the nation’s capital, tourists and protesters alike could spot these distinctive black-capped songbirds along the National Mall gorging on caterpillar infestations high in the promenades of oaks. Depending on the tailwinds in those April nights, it might arrive early in the forest thicket known as the Ramble. This wild garden in Central Park is the “Manhattan” of migratory songbirds, which is fortuitously located in Manhattan. Approximating a dense woodland of the Catskills, the Ramble, like all of Central Park, is a manmade construction of nature. It is estimated that the amount of earth moved to sculpt Central Park would have filled enough wagons to stretch from NYC to Miami and back.
Feasting on urban lepidopterans, the blackpoll might do a flyover of the Brooklyn Bridge, where a 200-year-old sturgeon is said to still live beneath its eastern tower. From there it is only two-day’s flight to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, following the 74th meridian, then west to the 93rd. The abyss of Canada’s northern interior will be its breeding ground come May—making appearances in the suburban lawns of Winnipeg and Calgary, en-route to its proverbial oyster: Nunavut and the Yukon.
In these boreal forests, some 20,000 years ago, the blackpoll would have been sitting atop three-kilometer-thick ice. This ancient Laurentide Ice Sheet carved and sculpted the phenological clock that guides the daily movements of our avian friend by changing the Earth’s wobble, and its ensuing seasons. Gone for thousands of years, the vanished mass is still causing the Earth’s mantle to readjust, pulling the spin of the planet’s axis toward Canada a few extra inches each year. Now with the loss of Greenland and Antarctica’s melting ice sheets (see climate change), the spin of the Earth’s axis is moving further east, changing the seasonal clock at an even faster clip, hastening our warbler’s southward yearning. The autumnal exodus of the blackpoll to its southern wintering grounds has never been a fixed date engraved in stone, but is as dynamic and in flux as that of the North American continental crust afloat on the Earth’s mantle.