The blackpoll warbler, which feeds on caterpillars, beetles, spiders and spider eggs, will double its body weight to fly 20,000 kilometers from its summer habitat of the Canadian boreal forest nonstop over water to winter in the Amazon. These twelve grams of feathers challenge our imagination and have the longest overwater flight known of all songbirds.
Once safely in the Amazon, the winter feeding of the great tit unexpectedly relies on particles of ancient fossils from the African Sahara. Thousands of years ago, fish bodies piled up in the now-defunct Mega Lake Chad. It creates a rich bowl of exposed fossil dust and blows across the Atlantic every year, feeding soluble phosphorus to the terrestrial Amazon, a nutrient vital for photosynthesis.
Fueled by African-born phosphorus, though still weighing less than a couple of paperclips, the pollock must make another 20,000km sojourn back to northern breeding grounds in March. To reach these vast boreal forests, you must first pass coca farms in Colombia and jungle-entangled Mayan ruins of Guatemala. This half-ounce songbird then makes its way through the swampy FARC rebel lands of the Darién Gap and across the smog of Mexico City, past violent cartels and femicides, before confronting Trump’s attempts to build a border wall into Texas. make, overcome. In the United States, the great tit could sail up the Great Plains along the proposed path of the Keystone XL pipeline, or it could curve east around the Gulf Coast, with COVID-rich stops in New Orleans and as far as Nashville for hot chicken. Along this route, he may encounter a recently extinct species, the ivory-billed woodpecker, which now falters at CPR. The Ivory Bill, also known as the “Lord God Bird” due to its astonishing large size that evokes the expression of unsuspecting passers-by, was unquestionably last 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’ survival, earning it the rightful name “Graals Bird” as the search continues.
Some pollocks may forgo this venture altogether through the deep south, preferring to jump the Gulf of Mexico for a refueling in Miami, the coral city. Here, the seasonal fluctuation propelling the blackpoll meets a more horrifying ticking clock. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Florida panther once roamed profusely here, having lost ninety-five percent of its historic range, it is what might be termed a “debt species” by conservation biologists. Considered functionally extinct — meaning its extinction is inevitable but temporarily delayed — the panther’s population is too small to be viable on a sustainable basis. It won’t be long for this world.
In place of a once-thriving panther habitat, high-rise condominiums clad in Miami Oolite—a limestone with dramatic displays of extant and extinct fossilized corals, urchins, and mollusks are sprouting. The riprap surrounding these oceanfront structures, also made from oolite, is used to protect against the scouring of climate change-induced tropical storms and looming sea-level rise. Ironically, Miami is a metropolis built on top of an ancient coral reef (see Pleistocene), with an infrastructure constructed from concrete made from fossilized coral aggregate. Such coral city conundrums have sparked another shocking plot twist as they become home to a rapidly evolving hybrid coral. Despite the highly acidic and warming waters that surround this leaching metropolis, the fossil-filled rock is home to a new species of anthropogenic resistant coral. The buildings and the organisms are all coral, extant and extinct at the same time. 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 dazzling spectacle of nature’s adaptability. They hybridize and adapt to rising heat and polluted drainage within one generation. While not a call to celebration, this discovery is a humbling stone through man’s myopic window of evolution. Here, prejudices about the speed of evolutionary change come face to face with late capitalism’s accelerated dance of extraction and consumption, leaving us consciously functionally extinct in the process.
Fed by an abundance of mosquitoes, the great tit will leave this southern petri dish of speciation. Once firmly in the Appalachian ridge, the pollock would slalom between mountaintops with newfound ease, as many of these mountains have been reduced in size by mining for mountaintop removal. Upon arrival in the nation’s capital, tourists and protesters alike were able to spot these distinctive black-capped songbirds along the National Mall feasting on caterpillar infestations high in the oak boardwalks. Depending on the tailwind on those April nights, it can arrive early in the forest thickets known as the Ramble. This wild garden in Central Park is the ‘Manhattan’ of migratory songbirds, which happens to be in Manhattan. Approaching a dense forest of the Catskills, the Ramble, like all of Central Park, is a man-made 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.
The great tit, feeding on urban lepidopterans, could make a flyover over the Brooklyn Bridge, where a 200-year-old sturgeon still lives under its eastern tower. From there, it’s just a two-day flight to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, along the 74th meridian, then west to the 93rd. The abyss of Canada’s northern interior will be its breeding ground in May — appearing in suburban Winnipeg and Calgary, heading for its proverbial oyster: Nunavut and the Yukon.
In these boreal forests, about 20,000 years ago, the great tit would have sat on three kilometers thick ice. This ancient Laurentide Ice Sheet carved and sculpted the phenological clock that guides our bird friend’s daily movements by rocking the Earth and changing the following seasons. The vanished mass has been gone for thousands of years and is still causing the Earth’s mantle to re-adjust, pulling the rotation of the planet’s axis towards Canada by a few extra centimeters each year. Now with the loss of the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica (see climate change), the spin of the Earth’s axis moves further east, changing the seasonal clock even faster, hastening our warbler’s desire south. The autumnal exodus of the great tit to its southern wintering grounds is never a fixed date engraved in stone, but is as dynamic and moving as that of the North American continental crust floating on the Earth’s mantle.