A Couple of Paper Clips and a Couple of Million Years – Brooklyn Rail

Feeding on caterpillars, insects, spiders and spider eggs, the blackbird will double its body weight and fly 20,000 kilometers over water non-stop from its summer habitat in the Canadian boreal forests to winter in the Amazon. This twelve-gram feather, which defies our imaginations, has the longest known flight over water of any songbird.

Once safely in the Amazon, the black pollinator’s winter food unexpectedly depends on particles from ancient fossils in the African Sahara. Thousands of years ago, fish carcasses piled up in the now-defunct Mega-Lake in Chad. Creating a rich bowl of exposed fossil dust, it blows across the Atlantic every year, feeding the terrestrial Amazon with dissolved phosphorus, a nutrient vital for photosynthesis.

Born in Africa, the phosphorus-fed, still weighing less than a few paper clips, must make the 20,000km journey back to breeding grounds in the north by March. To reach these vast boreal forests, one must first pass the coca farms of Colombia and the Mayan ruins trapped in the jungles of Guatemala. The half-ounce passer then crosses violent cartels and femicide through the swampy FARC rebel lands of the Darien Gate and the smog of Mexico City before fending off Trump’s attempts to build a border wall with Texas. In the United States, the black vote may ascend the Great Plains along the proposed path of the Keystone XL Pipeline or head east around the Gulf Coast, with COVID-rich stops in New Orleans and Nashville for hot chicken. On this route, he may encounter a recently declared extinct species, the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is now in intensive care. Also known as the “Lord God Bird” due to its astonishingly large size, which no doubt elicits expressions from passers-by, the last sighting of the ivory-billed bird was undoubtedly in Louisiana in 1944. In 2021, this magnificent species was declared extinct… . A few months later, a group of biologists published what they considered irrefutable evidence of the species’ persistence, earning it the well-deserved name of the “Grail Bird” as the search continued.

Some black polls may abandon this venture entirely in the deep south, preferring to cross the Gulf of Mexico to refuel in the coral city of Miami. Here, the seasonal fluctuation that drives blackpoll meets a more terrifying ticking clock. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the once-abundant Florida panther has now lost ninety-five percent of its historic range, making it what conservation biologists call a “liability species.” Considered functionally extinct—that is, its extinction is imminent but momentarily delayed—the panther’s population is too small to survive sustainably. Not long for this world.

In place of once-thriving panther habitats, high-rise condominiums are rising, covered in Miami Oolite—a limestone with a dramatic display of extant and extinct fossilized coral, urchins, and molluscs. The pits surrounding these oceanfront structures made of oolite are used to protect against tropical storms and the inevitable sea level rise caused by climate change. Ironically, Miami is a metropolis built on top of an ancient coral reef (see Pleistocene), with an infrastructure built of concrete made from petrified coral aggregate. Such conundrums of Coral City fuel another shocking plot as they become home to a rapidly evolving hybrid coral. Despite the highly acidic and warm waters surrounding this washed-out metropolis, the remains-laden rock provides homes for a new species of anthropogenically resilient coral. Buildings and organisms are coral, present and extinct at the same time. Thriving in the busiest shipping lanes of the “Cruise Capital of the World,” recently discovered by NeoPunk artist and scientist Colin Foord, these hard corals offer a fascinating picture of nature’s adaptability. They hybridize and adapt to increased heat and polluted runoff within a generation. While not a call for celebration, this discovery is a brick pushed down through humans’ myopic evolutionary window. Here, preconceived notions about the rate of evolutionary change collide with the accelerated production and consumption dance of late capitalism, deliberately functionally destroying us in the process.

Black pollen fed by an abundance of mosquitoes will be released from this southern petri dish. Once firmly entrenched within the Appalachian Range, the blacktops slipped between newfound mountaintops with ease as many of these mountains were reduced by mountaintop mining. After arriving in the nation’s capital, tourists and protestors could see these distinctive black-capped songbirds perched high on the oak walkways along the National Mall. Depending on the tailwinds on those April nights, he might arrive early in the forest thicket known as the Ramble. This wild garden in Central Park is the “Manhattan” of migratory songbirds, which happens to be located in Manhattan. Approaching the dense forest of the Catskills, the Ramble, like all of Central Park, is a man-made structure of nature. It is estimated that the amount of earth moved to sculpt Central Park would have filled enough wagons to stretch from New York to Miami and back.

Feasting on urban lepidopterans, the black poll may make the crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge, where a 200-year-old sturgeon is said to still live beneath the east tower. From there it’s just a two-day flight across the 74th meridian to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, then west to the 93rd. Canada’s northern escarpment will be its breeding ground in May – seen in the suburbs of Winnipeg and Calgary on its proverbial road to Nunavut and the Yukon.

In these boreal forests, around 20,000 years ago, the black pole would have been sitting on three kilometers of ice. This ancient Laurentide Ice Sheet etched and sculpted the phenological clock that guides the daily movements of our bird friend, altering the wobble of the Earth and its subsequent seasons. The mass, which has been missing for thousands of years, is still causing Earth’s mantle to realign, pulling the spin of the planet’s axis a few extra inches toward Canada each year. Now with the loss of the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica (see climate change), the rotation of the Earth’s axis moves further eastward, changing the seasonal clock even faster and speeding up our nightingale’s longing south. Blackpoll’s fall to southern winters has never been a fixed date set in stone, but is as dynamic and fluid as that of the North American continental crust floating in the Earth’s mantle.

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