Coffee Funds Support Research

July 9, 2010 by Robert Rice

Since its inception, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's (SMBC) "Bird Friendly®" (BF) coffee program—a science-based shade certification that assures quality bird habitat within the coffee production area—has collected funds in the form of remittances from participating roasters.

These royalty payments help support research and education related to migratory bird conservation in general and the coffee-as-habitat theme in particular. Some of the research and educational efforts supported by this BF coffee fund are listed below.

Costa Rica: Bird species richness and Fruit Energy Availability (FEA)

Shade-grown coffee plantations provide habitat and structure for many bird species, but can these plantations also provide the food resources that many bird species need? In the tropics, many bird species depend on the constant availability of fruit during the entire year.

However, deforestation removes the trees that produce fruit for birds and when farmers select trees to include in their coffee plantations, they may not necessarily choose trees that ensure birds a constant supply of available fruit.

To understand whether fruit resources are a critical component of conservation practices in the managed landscape, we investigated how the birds that use coffee plantations respond to fruit resource availability.

The key findings of our study indicate that bird species richness is highly linked to the availability of fruit energy in shade-grown coffee plantations, and these results are the first to demonstrate the importance of fruit resources to the bird community that utilizes shade-grown coffee plantations in the tropics.

Therefore, conservation practices in the managed landscape, such as shade-grown coffee plantations, should incorporate the planting of tree species that contribute to yearly or monthly FEA.

Bees and steady-state floral resources

Bees are the most important pollinators globally, and they contribute to the production of more than 1/3 of the world's most important food crops. Coffee is one crop benefits from pollination by insects, especially bees, although coffee is self-compatible (meaning that it can be pollinated without the help of bees).

Furthermore, when coffee plants are cross-pollinated the initial seed-set increases to 75%, while the initial seed set for coffee plants that are manually self-pollinated is only 60%. So, bees as the cross-pollinators can add to a farm's overall production.

Experimental field research can improve our understanding of best practices for the management of coffee farms to maintain bees throughout the year. Coffee flowers bloom in seasonally dry regions with the onset of wet season rains and each bloom lasts only two or three days.

Because coffee flowers are so short-lived, coffee flowers only provide the floral resources of nectar and pollen for a total of about 10 to 12 days each year. In order to maintain bees, then, in coffee farms, additional floral resources should be available during the remainder of the year.

We investigated the contribution of one plant, which produces flowers during all months of the year (a steady-state flowering plant) to the bee community in shade-grown coffee plantations. We also differentiated bee visitation to coffee flowers during the smaller bloom period (about 30% of coffee plants in flower) and the mass bloom period (about 100% of coffee plants in flower).

Species accumulation curves show that bee species richness was higher overall in farms with the planted steady-state floral resource, but that there were fewer bee species visiting coffee flowers during the smaller coffee blooms in the farms where the steady-state floral resource was experimentally planted.

This pattern, however, was not detected during the mass bloom. In addition the number of native bee visits to coffee flowers was lower during the smaller coffee blooms in farms with the steady-state floral resource than in farms without. During the mass bloom the number of native bee visits to coffee flowers was equal between farms with and without the steady-state floral resource.

In comparing overall bee visitation and species richness between the small coffee bloom period and the mass coffee bloom period, we found that the non-native European honeybee, Apis mellifera, was responsible for the majority of coffee pollination during the mass bloom (74%) while native bees were responsible for the majority of coffee pollination during the small bloom periods (57%).

We also found the mean initial seed set rate during the small coffee bloom periods was 74.4%; the same initial seed-set rate found when coffee is cross-pollinated. The mean initial seed set rate during the mass coffee bloom, however, was 58.9%; the same initial seed-set rate found when coffee is manually self-pollinated.

Findings published here:

Peters, V.E., R. Mordecai, C.R. Carroll, R.J. Cooper and R. Greenberg. 2010. Bird community response to fruit energy. Journal of Animal Ecology 79(4):824-835.

More about this research project

Biofuels as Bird Habitat: Grassland Bird Research in Mid-West

In spring 2010, Dr. Bruce Robertson began investigating the ability of next generation bioenergy crops like switchgrass and mixed-prairie to act as a new source of habitat for migratory grassland birds in Michigan. Switchgrass is a grass species native to North America and a top candidate for a second generation bioenergy crop.

Panama: Birds control insects in cacao

Many insects are herbivorous, meaning that they eat leaves and other parts of plants. In agricultural systems, an uncontrolled insect population can lower yields by decreasing the leaf area of the crop—that part of the crop crucial to photosynthesis and overall growth and health of the plant. This study, supported entirely by the BF coffee funds, addressed the role of birds as biological control agents (i.e., their ability to eat insects) on cacao farms.

What are the implications of bird predation on arthropods (that is, insects and spiders) for cocoa crops? Potentially, it could decrease crop yield because

  1. losing photosynthetic material reduces fruit production and/or
  2. insects or insect-borne pathogens directly damage fruits
Sunshine at enclosure in 
jungle

Studies of the benefits that birds provide to cacao farmers in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama have examined their effect on plant-eating insects. Exclosures (constructed from a nylon netting that completely covered cacao vegetation) were set up to keep birds away from cacao plants and prevent them from eating insects that damage the plants. Other plots without exclosures, in which birds had access to whatever insects were present, were used for comparison.

The experiment revealed that birds play an important role in controlling the insect community. Researchers found higher numbers of arthropods, and more leaf damage on exclosure trees than on non-exclosure trees. The presence of birds reduced large-arthropod densities by an average of 46% and reduced leaf damage by 22%. Birds do play an important role in controlling insects in cacao plantations. The chestnut-sided warbler, in particular, was often seen foraging for insects in cacao.

Bird predation is a potential ecosystem service that helps farmers by limiting pests on forested cocoa farms. In return, the presence of shade crops in the region provides important habitat for a wide diversity of resident birds and migratory birds from North America.

Findings published here:

Van Bael, S.A., P. Bichier and R. Greenberg. 2007. Bird predation on insects reduces damage to the foliage of cocoa trees (Theobroma cacao) in western Panama. Journal of Tropical Ecology 23:715­719.

More about this research project

Jamaica: Shade coffee as habitat in the face of climate change

This project meets several urgent needs including,

  1. Understanding how climate change within tropical ecosystems alters the diversity of passerine bird species
  2. Monitoring human-environmental interactions through time
  3. Studying human impacts on the environment
Herlitz banding a bird

This project is just starting, and results should be available within 12 to 18 months. The image here shows Herlitz Davis, the researcher funded by some BF coffee funds, banding a bird in the field.

Chiapas, Mexico: Field testing ecological and economic benefits of coffee certification programs

This study, supported by the BF coffee funds, compared coffee cooperatives with organic, organic/fair trade, and coffee farms with no certifications. No co-ops in the region had shade certification, but scientists used the BF shade criteria to evaluate farms that would qualify as BF.

In order to assess the biodiversity aspects of these different certifications, researchers studied the vegetation composition of each farm, as well as the abundance and diversity of ants and birds.

Large caterpillar with lime-green spikes munching on a leaf

No differences were found in vegetation characteristics, ant or bird species richness, or fraction of forest fauna in farms based on certification. Farmers with organic and organic and fair-trade certification were cultivating more total land and in some cases had a higher revenue than uncertified farmers.

Coffee area per se did not vary among farm types. None of the cooperatives passed shade-coffee certification standards because the plantations lacked vertical stratification (i.e., the "structural diversity" of the shade trees in profile required by BF standards), yet vegetation variables for shade certification significantly correlated with ant and bird diversity.

Although farmers in the Chiapas highlands with organic and/or fair-trade certification may reap some economic benefits from their certification status, their farms may not protect as much biodiversity as shade-certified farms.

Landscape picture of hills and low-hanging clouds

Working toward triple certification (organic, fair trade, and shade) at the farm level may enhance biodiversity protection, increase benefits to farmers, and lead to more successful conservation strategies in coffee-growing regions.

Findings published here:

Philpott, S., P. Bichier, R. Rice and R. Greenberg. 2007. Field-Testing Ecological and Economic Benefits of Coffee Certification Programs. Conservation Biology 21(4):975­985.

Philpott, S., P. Bichier, R. Rice and R. Greenberg. 2008. Biodiversity conservation, yield, and alternative products in coffee agroecosystems in Sumatra, Indonesia. Biodiversity Conservation 17:1805­1820.

Veracruz, Mexico: Epiphytes and Birds in Shade Coffee

This study, supported by BF coffee funds, yielded intriguing findings. In the Mexican state of Veracruz, farm workers commonly remove epiphytic plants (like orchids, bromeliads, ferns, etc.) from the shade trees. A scientist asked "What effect do the presence of epiphytes in a shade coffee system have on the bird community?"

The researcher created a large-scale experiment in the coffee farm by having a farmer clear epiphytes from some areas of the farm but leave the epiphytes on the shade trees in other areas. The two areas were then sampled for bird abundance and diversity, as well as for movement by birds between the two treatments. Data on overall shade cover and interaction with rainfall were also collected.

When the epiphytes are removed, the following things happen:

  • Shade cover decreases overall
  • Soil moisture decreases
  • More rainfall hits the ground directly, more runs off as ovarland flow
  • Bird abundance decreases
  • Bird species and community structure changes
  • Some species of birds actively leave to search for other habitat types

In general, this study supported the expected outcome of certain bird species disappearing from the coffee system when epiphytes are removed. These are birds that make use of the epiphytes in some way, nesting in them, using the material for nesting, or specializing on foraging in or around the epiphytes. This result makes sense: we would expect these epiphyte-related species to go elsewhere when the epiphytes are removed.

Tree branches covered in 
epiphytes

What is very interesting, however, is that a number of other species with no obvious connection to epiphytes also disappeared or declined where epiphytes are absent. So, we still don't yet understand the indirect effects from the presence of the epiphytes that we do not understand yet. But we can say with confidence that the presence of epiphytes in shade coffee creates a habitat for a greater avian diversity (compared to farms without epiphytes).

Findings published here:

Cruz-Angon, A. and R. Greenberg. 2005. Are epiphytes important for birds in coffee plantations? An experimental assessment. Journal of Applied Ecology 42:150­159.

More about this research project

California and Alaska: The Orange-crowned Warbler

An on-going project targeting the orange-crowned warbler populations in Alaska and the islands off the coast of southern California is attempting to decipher differences in the these two distinct populations—especially in the behavior of the parent birds—of the same species.

small greenish-yellow bird in oak treehandheld small greenish-yellow bird about to be measured by a woman

The project leader wrote this:

“The Orange-crowned Warbler is an 8g, insectivorous songbird that breeds throughout western and northern North America. Populations in the boreal forests of Alaska and Canada are long-distance migrants, whereas those breeding on the California Channel Islands are residents. Because migration is a key source of mortality in songbirds, it plays an important and unrecognized role in driving variation in parental behavior.

With support from the Bird Friendly Coffee program, we are studying Orange-crowned Warblers at breeding sites in California and Alaska to test how adult mortality and food limitation during the breeding season affect parental behavior and the allocation of resources between parents and offspring.”

Findings published here:

Langin, K. M., T. S. Sillett, J. Yoon, H. R. Sofaer, C. K. Ghalambor. In review. Reproductive consequences of an extreme drought for songbirds on Santa Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands. Proceedings of the Seventh California Islands Symposium.

Peluc, S. I., T. S. Sillett, J. T. Rotenberry, and C. K. Ghalambor. 2008. Adaptive phenotypic plasticity in an island songbird exposed to a novel predation risk. Behavioral Ecology 19:830-835.

California: Bird in Vineyards

BF coffee proceeds support a PhD. studentstudying how to make wine vineyards bird friendly. Julie Jedlicka is a student in the College of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and she works in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys of northern California.

Julie on ladder checking bird box in vineyard

Her study focuses on the role of birds as predators on insect pests in wine growing regions through the augmentation of nest boxes and the use of netting exclosures in vineyards to compare areas where birds are present and absent. The project aims to assess the economic value of birds to vineyard farmers and to evaluate the role that the protection of native vegetation and the introduction of nest boxes have in increasing bird populations.

southern California is attempting to decipher differences in the these two distinct populations—especially in the behavior of the parent birds—of the same species.

small greenish-yellow bird in oak treehandheld small greenish-yellow bird about to be measured by a woman

The project leader wrote this:

“The Orange-crowned Warbler is an 8g, insectivorous songbird that breeds throughout western and northern North America. Populations in the boreal forests of Alaska and Canada are long-distance migrants, whereas those breeding on the California Channel Islands are residents. Because migration is a key source of mortality in songbirds, it plays an important and unrecognized role in driving variation in parental behavior.

With support from the Bird Friendly Coffee program, we are studying Orange-crowned Warblers at breeding sites in California and Alaska to test how adult mortality and food limitation during the breeding season affect parental behavior and the allocation of resources between parents and offspring.”

Findings published here:

Langin, K. M., T. S. Sillett, J. Yoon, H. R. Sofaer, C. K. Ghalambor. In review. Reproductive consequences of an extreme drought for songbirds on Santa Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands. Proceedings of the Seventh California Islands Symposium.

Peluc, S. I., T. S. Sillett, J. T. Rotenberry, and C. K. Ghalambor. 2008. Adaptive phenotypic plasticity in an island songbird exposed to a novel predation risk. Behavioral Ecology 19:830-835.

California: Bird in Vineyards

BF coffee proceeds support a PhD. studentstudying how to make wine vineyards bird friendly. Julie Jedlicka is a student in the College of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and she works in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys of northern California.

Julie on ladder checking bird box in vineyard

Her study focuses on the role of birds as predators on insect pests in wine growing regions through the augmentation of nest boxes and the use of netting exclosures in vineyards to compare areas where birds are present and absent. The project aims to assess the economic value of birds to vineyard farmers and to evaluate the role that the protection of native vegetation and the introduction of nest boxes have in increasing bird populations.