Podcast: Coffee and Birds

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The Connection Between Coffee and Birds

In this podcast Fabiola Rodriguez, doctoral student from Tulane University, talks about coffee growing and migratory birds in the context of her areas of study: ornithology, ecology, and conservation. She also compares types of coffee farms and how they affect bird habitat.

Fabiola has been researching bird populations in Integrated Open Canopy™ coffee farms for the past several years and is mentoring a team of five local biologists in coffee regions surrounding Pico Pijol National Park, Honduras, with over 100 study sites.

Migratory bird populations are on the decline and coffee farms can act as critical habitat for these threatened species. North American migratory birds call Canada and US forests “home” (their breading grounds) but fly all the way down to Central, South America and Caribbean tropical forests every year to spend the winter. Since the natural, annual life cycle of these birds spans two continents there is a need for suitable habitat in two very different parts of the world, and unfortunately habitat loss has been rising while bird populations have been declining.

Fabiola says she recalls reading a study indicating that 2 billion birds had disappeared in last 50 years “and that’s a striking number”. That number is in fact 2.9 billion! A 29% decrease in North American birds since the 1970s.

“A staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.”

—Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick and study coauthor Peter Marra

Writing for the New York Times, journalist Carl Zimmer sums up nicely why we should view birds as our feathered friends: “Common bird species are vital to ecosystems, controlling pests, pollinating flowers, spreading seeds and regenerating forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats often are not the same”.

Feature image of Fabiola Rodriguez conducting field research about birds on coffee farms in Honduras.
Fabiola Rodriguez in the field studying birds on coffee farms in Honduras.

As far as coffee and birds are concerned, the connection has to do with the birds being able to select the best habitat for survival over winter, in order to make it back home in spring. The best option is obviously natural forests, but as the forests evolve into what she describes as “working landscapes” (that need to sustain people), new wintering habitats may include cattle farms (which have little to no trees); deforested areas (due to lumber, mining, etc.); and certain agricultural farms, like coffee farms (which are more ideal as a softer transition for the birds than cattle, for example).

The question Fabiola poses is, “Can these working landscapes sustain these species?” … And the answer is, yes! Bird-friendly coffee can offer a solution.

Bird-friendly Coffee: Comparing Coffee Growing Methods

Q. Are there types of coffee farms that tend to be better at sustaining migratory bird populations than others?

A. Yes. The three types of coffee farms Fabiola sees and works with:

  1. Sun coffee farms. These types of farms have only coffee trees (which are lower-to-the-ground shrubs). This monoculture coffee farm has a harsh, hot environment that supports the least number of migratory birds.
  2. Shade coffee farms. These types of farms spare (or “leave in tact”) some trees and forest amoungst the coffee trees; however she mentions that shade is by no means a closed canopy and that it varies from a handful of trees here and there to a bit more shaded in some areas. It’s never a thick canopy because the coffee trees need some sunlight, and from her research she finds percentages of shade cover to be extremely variable; however, shade coffee farms support more bird species than sun coffee farms.
  3. Integrated Open Canopy™ (IOC) farms. These types of farms are defined by “land-sparing”. Fabiola: “Imagine a coffee farm, which can have sun or some shade, and then right next to it a patch of forest that is equal in size. This is a method that has been recognized in the conservation literature as land-sparing, but in terms of coffee it also has another term … in Honduras, we know it as Integrated Open Canopy™ (IOC). The idea is that when you have many of these types of land-sparing farms you actually connect the landscape with trees and forests. It’s a method of production that was introduced by the Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI), which is an NGO I collaborate with when I’m in Honduras. They’re trying to make this form of production sustainable because it is conserving forest and forest at the end of the day is the natural habitat; so if you were to have this idea expand in the landscape it would have a very positive effect. And it’s especially positive because in Costa Rica where they’ve also studied these IOC farms, some of my collaborators found they had a higher species richness of forest dependent migratory birds than shade coffee farms.” So in conclusion, IOC farms are proven to support the greatest numbers and diversity of forest-dependent birds species.

Fabiola goes on to explain that collaborative researchers are also discovering that IOC coffee farms are having similar positive effects on, not just migratory birds, but other animal and insect species; in addition to significantly improving water and soil quality in the region. In the second half of the podcast: Fabiola talks about coffee farming, monocultures vs. biodiversity, coffee processing, and, another important issue, the fact that coffee processing is fulled by burning forest wood. “Approximately 6,500 hectares of forest in Central America are lost, not from planting coffee, but from drying coffee.”

For more information about how coffee processing is contributing to forest loss + our off-grid solution, visit: https://www.merchantsofgreencoffee.com/cafe-solar/

Portrait of Honduran ornithology scientist, Fabiola Rodriguez.

Fabiola Rodriguez is a doctoral student from Tulane University researching bird populations in Integrated Open Canopy™ coffee farms for the past several years.  She is from Tegucigalpa, Honduras and is mentoring a team of five local biologists in coffee regions surrounding Pico Pijol National Park, with over 100 study sites. This makes her a Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI) research collaborator.

Fabiola studied biology in Honduras and fell in love with observing ecosystem interactions, eventually focusing her study on ornithology. She first became a field technician, and eventually wanted to design the research and ask questions that contribute to both science and conservation, which is why she went on to complete her doctorate degree.

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