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Help Wintering Orioles and Warblers
by Using Shade Coffee

By SBTH Executive Director Kay Charter

Shade Coffee Plantaion

If you knew that coffee beans are the second most traded commodity in the world, go to the head of the class. Until attending a sustainable development conference in Chicago late in August, I didn’t know it - even though I was aware that Americans collectively down 300 million cups of brew every day. Add our consumption to what the rest of the world drinks and you have a total of 400 billion cups of java consumed every year. It’s no surprise that coffee trading falls in right after crude oil. Until about thirty years ago, that number was relatively unimportant to migrating birds. Unfortunately, today it means an enormous loss of wintering habitat for them.

The bean used to brew our morning mug comes from Coffea arabica, a shrub which originated in Ethiopia where it thrived under tree canopies. By the 16th century, coffee was available in Europe, and Jesuit missionaries had brought beans to the New World for cultivation. The best coffees come from mountainous regions around the world in a zone between 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south of the equator. For more than four hundred years, as coffee farming encircled the globe, this shrub was still grown under canopies. Then agriculturalists figured out how to strip the land of all other vegetation for vast monocultural plantations of high yielding plants. Most coffee now comes from these “sun” plantations, which depend on an arsenal of agrochemicals. Synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are constant companions of farmers who have “technified” their holdings. Unfortunately, sun plantations are fundamental deserts for wildlife. They are virtually devoid of bird life.

A few shade plantations remain. Many are organic, and all include a variety of trees and shrubs native to the regions of the individual farms. Shade plantations are characterized by a complex structure: a combination of a closed canopy of large trees with an open mid-level under story. Beneath that opening are the coffee bushes. Nearly 800 species of insects thrive within that structure, and those insects support a high density of birds. Such plantations include flower bearing Inga trees which attract tanagers, honey creepers, hummingbirds and orioles. Shade farms also include trees like mangos which draw in Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and other fruit eaters. It has been suggested that the little Tennessee warbler might be better named “coffee warbler” because of its dependence upon coffee plantations. Other warblers such as Cerulean, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian and Bay-breasted are also found in these life-giving farms. One shade farmer in Mexico documented more than two hundred species on his farm, including the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal and the elegant American Redstart.

Many of our Neotropical species - those birds that abandon North America after nesting in favor of Central and South America - are in decline. We birders who live in the nesting regions for these birds tend to focus only on loss of habitats in breeding areas. But wintering grounds are equally important. Shade plantations are increasingly vital to at least maintaining population densities of many of our marvelous feathered migrants. Since birders number about 70 million in the U.S. alone, we have it in our power to influence how coffee is grown - and thus how much habitat is saved for the birds we all love. We can do that by choosing shade coffee. As the remaining warblers, hummingbirds and thrushes leave for the tropics, ask yourself if it isn’t worth spending a few more pennies a day to provide them with winter habitat.

In recent years, shade coffee has become widely available. Check your local market. If you don’t find it there, you can purchase online at BirdsandBeans.com .

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