Bird Friendly Royalty Cycling for Research

December 5, 2013 by Robert Rice



The Bird Friendly (BF) coffee program seeks to identify farms that display a shade management regime consistent with the bio-physical criteria developed from field work by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's staff. Since the late 1990s, the program's efforts have identified thousands of small and large producers who manage their coffee in such ways as to meet the BF criteria—providing habitat for migratory and resident birds alike.

In Japan, the BF coffee certification has gained a substantial hold within the specialty coffee market. The roasters involved have worked diligently to promote the BF concept and seal successfully, generating and remitting royalty funds to the SMBC office. These funds are used for research and education related to migratory birds in general and to the BF coffee program in particular. The cycling of these funds toward various research projects has benefited not only our staff, but the various students and post-doctoral fellows that work with us in conducting research and education linked to migratory and non-migratory birds.

The recent and current projects (2012/2013/2014) supported by the BF coffee royalty funds are:

The Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) Project

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center researchers (Drs. Ryder, Marra and Sillett) have been studying the enigmatic population declines of the wood thrush, which is a species of concern throughout eastern North America. The project aims to understand what local and landscape factors influence population dynamics by combining intensive demographic monitoring throughout annual cycle (breeding and non-breeding seasons). Like most migratory species, wood thrush spend approximately 5 months annually on their non-breeding range in Central America, yet most demographic studies of population declines ignore how events during the wintering period influence subsequent breeding success.

To date, we have collected key data on Wood thrush vital rates (nest success, adult and juvenile survival) in both Indiana and Belize in an attempt to understand what factors cause population declines. Our research suggest that habitat configuration such as the percentage of core interior forest on the breeding grounds is one of the key elements for successful population growth. While work during the non-breeding season has only recently initiated we have been studying wood thrush across a habitat gradient. This gradient includes agro-ecosystems such as coffee plantations and cacao and we hope to be able to better understand if and how these environment provide suitable over wintering areas for migratory species like the wood thrush.

The Wire-tailed Manakin (Pipra filicauda) Project

Smithsonian Migratory Research Dr. Ryder has been studying the complex social behavior of wire-tailed manakins in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Wire-tailed manakins exhibit a rare form of cooperative behavior in which two males dance together to attract mates. This study has specifically been investigating the hormonal and neurogenetic nature of these behaviors and how they influence social networks. Dr. Ryder hopes to understand how the combination of hormones and their effect in the brain influence differences in personality and successful cooperative partnerships. This study combines behavioral neuroendocrinology with novel technology that allows autonomous monitoring of male social behavior. Recent extensions of this project will begin studying how landscape configuration impacts the social organization of this highly social bird.

Habitat Quality and Mating Behavior in Warblers

Black-throated blue warblers are small, territorial, insect-eating songbirds that breed in eastern North America and migrate to the Caribbean for the winter. Most males are "socially monogamous," meaning they are mated to a single female. About 10% of males are bigamous, with two females nesting on their territories. However, all is not as it appears: up to 50% of black-throated blue warbler nests have young sired by a male that is not the territory holder. Dr. Sara Kaiser, a recently graduated Ph.D. student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, has been studying the mating system of these warblers in the hardwood forests of New Hampshire.

The number of young that black-throated blue warblers can produce in a 2-3 month breeding season is limited by the amount of food in the forest. Males can increase this number by surreptitiously mating with females that are already paired with other males. Searching for "extra-pair" mates requires time and energy. Males must decide when and where to invest their energy into this behavior because pursuing additional matings conflicts with their ability to guard their social mates from other males, or to feed their chicks.

Kaiser analyzed warbler behavior and genetic data collected from 2009 – 2012. She discovered that males mostly mated with extra-pair females while their "social" mate was incubating her eggs, and that males on food-rich territories sired fewer extra-pair young compared to males on food-poor territories. Why? Because females were more faithful to social mates that had territories with lots of food. She also found that males on food-rich territories mostly mated with females on neighboring territories, while males on food-limited territories mated with females several territories away. Kaiser's results suggest that males on high quality territories spend more time "close to home," defending their territories from intruders. In contrast, males and females on poor territories need to travel further to forage. This could affect the encounter rates between males and females. Kaiser's research, to be published in 2014, helps explain how habitat quality affects where and how often seemingly monogamous songbirds mate outside their pair-bond.

Landscape Restoration Aids Island Scrub-Jay

Santa Cruz Island, largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of California, is home to several unique species, including the rare Island scrub-jay (Aphelocoma insularis) whose population is estimated at fewer than 3000 individuals (Sillett et al. 2012). Found only on this rugged 96-square-mile island, the Island Scrub-Jay is the most range-restricted and only island-endemic bird in continental North America. The small range of the species and growing concern about its vulnerability to disease, natural disaster, and climate change prompted The Nature Conservancy and the U. S. National Park Service, who jointly manage the island, to initiate a monitoring and research program in 2008. Research at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Colorado State University, supported in part by funds from the sale of Bird Friendly Coffee, has focused on learning more about the reproductive ecology and behavior of this species in order to inform management decisions.

The landscape of Santa Cruz Island was dramatically altered by cattle, sheep, and pigs that were remnants of an earlier ranching era. Oak chaparral vegetation, premium habitat for the Island scrub-jay, is slowly recovering after the removal of those non-native ungulates. SMBC scientists have been particularly interested in understanding the effect of habitat characteristics on reproductive behavior and breeding success of the Island scrub-jay. The birds build nests in shrubs and trees, females incubate 2-5 eggs per nest and both adults participate in feeding the young. By monitoring territories across a range of habitat over several years, we discovered that a large fraction of nests failed at the egg and nestling stages, with over 90% of these failures caused by nest predators like the island fox, gopher snake, Cooper's hawk, common raven and other Island scrub-jays. Happily, pairs re-nest up to 6 times and are still able to fledge an average of 1-2 young per year, despite high predation. Habitat characteristics influence nest predation: nests that are more concealed and on territories with greater canopy cover are less likely to be depredated. This suggests that continued habitat regeneration on Santa Cruz Island may improve the reproductive success of the Island scrub-jay by reducing predation on nests.

Satellite Tracking Reveals Movement of Black-crowned Night Heron

For decades, black-crowned night-herons have arrived at the National Zoological Park (NZP) in spring, built their nests (up to 125!), raised their young and departed in September—for unknown points south. Where do they go? NZP is well positioned to discover the answer: not only do we host this extensive rookery around the Bird House, but also we have the expertise of scientists from the world famous Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). We used bird-friendly coffee funding to acquire three satellite tracking tags to study the migratory movements of black-crowned night-herons (BCNH) in real-time.

These tags allow us to track the movements of the night herons as they head south from National Zoo to their wintering grounds and then return north again next spring to breed. You can see from the image that all three of the birds (represented by red, yellow and green circles) started at the zoo where they bred but then over a few weeks dispersed into the greater Washington DC region. Where will they go next?

This project has implications beyond producing new data and following "our" herons through their annual migration cycle. Visitor response to the tracking study will inform and guide Zoo planning for Marvelous Migrations, NZP's revitalization project to transform the Bird House and a 4.3 acre site into an interactive experience inspiring conservation action for the Zoo's 2.2 million annual visitors. Scheduled to open in 2019, "Marvelous Migrations" will incorporate the heron rookery as an exhibit in itself, with canopy blinds to view the herons' secretive ways and satellite tags to interpret and track our herons throughout the year. The three following images show the movement of the three tagged herons in the late summer and later in the fall.

Darwin's Finches: Bills as Heat Radiators

Figure 1. Small, medium, and large ground finches. These are just three of Darwin's finch species, which show a wide variety of beak sizes and shapes.

Darwin's finches are icons of evolution. This group of closely related species shows a striking diversity in beak size and shape across the Galapagos Islands, which has literally become a textbook example of how the environment can cause species to evolve. These diverse beaks led Charles Darwin to propose the theory of natural selection, and for the past 175 years have been studied as adaptations to the type of food eaten by each species.

For the first time, we're studying how Darwin's finches use their bills as heat radiators. The ability to release extra body heat is particularly important for species that experience hot, dry weather, such as Darwin's finches. This previously unappreciated role for thermoregulation might cause the evolution of larger or smaller bills or restrict distributions of species.

Figure 2. A thermal image of a small ground finch at an ambient temperature of 28°C. Note the warm leg, warm patch around the eyes, and the partially warm beak.

In the summer of 2013, we began investigating the role of Darwin's finch beaks in heat loss. We were particularly interested in how species differ in their use of the beak for thermoregulation. Using thermal imaging cameras, we took over 500 infrared images of free-living finches in a variety of environmental conditions. We found that these species can control how much heat is lost through the bill, allowing them to conserve heat at cool ambient temperatures and release more heat at hot temperatures.

Further, each species regulates its beak temperature differently, which might allow the birds to remain active at different times of the day. Future research will ask if these differences in heat loss strategies contribute to the evolution of bill size and shape, and if they restrict the distributions of the species.

American Dippers: Indicators of River Health

The Elwha River on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula is undergoing an amazing transformation. For nearly a century, two dams cut off one of the most important members of riparian ecosystems in the west: anadromous fish. Thanks to the 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act and a collaboration between the National Parks Service and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, one of these dams was completely removed in 2012, and the second is in the process of being removed. This is the largest dam removal project in history, and the benefits are already being realized as several species of Pacific salmonids have already begun returning to spawning grounds that have been unused for 100 years.

My research on the Olympic Peninsula is a collaboration with the Elwha Tribe and focuses on perhaps the most important indirect benefit to wildlife in the Elwha watershed: rich marine nutrients transported into the river by spawning salmon and steelhead. We are using birds, primarily the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), as indicators of marine derived nutrients in aquatic and riparian food webs. Since 2011, we have been tracking these nutrients through stable isotope analysis of bird prey and bird tissue. We are also quantifying how birds respond to the presence of salmon in their body condition, behavior, and demographics. In addition, we are measuring dipper exposure to methyl mercury, which may occur as a result of reservoir sediments released into the river. These data will be used to quantify the environmental impacts of dams and the benefits of restored fish runs to the overall ecosystem, and track the recovery of this magnificent watershed.


These are some of the research projects and findings that are being supported in some way from the royalty payments that roasters remit to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center via the Bird Friendly coffee program. The research fund maintained by our roaster partners is a crucial source of support for the varied, innovative projects conducted by the SMBC research staff, the post-doctoral fellows who work with us, and the graduate and undergraduate students we mentor. New studies are continually being developed and supported with the royalty funds, which means that additional projects featuring cutting-edge research will be important aspects of SMBC's overall impact in ornithological scholarship in the future.