Coffee Culture Has Bloomed, but Birds Are Threatened Because of It

Coffee Culture Has Bloomed, but Birds Are Threatened Because of It

It’s difficult for some people to not have their daily coffee, especially today when coffee culture has been well-established in every nook and corner of the modern, urban world. Sadly, the birds are not getting all that feel-good state. 

Researchers at the University of Utah led a new study which examines a record of birds’ diets and radio tracking of their movements. They found that birds eat far fewer invertebrates in coffee plantations than in forests, suggesting that what’s been giving us energy boost impacts the birds’ dietary options significantly. 

Lead author Çağan H. Şekercioğlu said, “Growing human ecological impact on the planet, especially via habitat loss and degradation and climate change, often impacts bird diets negatively as well.” 

“These negative changes, including declines in key dietary resources like insects and other invertebrates can lead to reduced survival, especially of rapidly growing young, often leading to population declines and losses of these undernourished birds.” 

When forests are turned into coffee plantations 

To accommodate the demands and needs of urban dwellers, forests have been turned into smaller patches or remnants within agricultural lands. When natural forest habitat is decreasing, it means that about a third of bird species have been working to survive in human-dominated environments. 

In Costa Rica, for example, the land around the Las Cruces Biological Station near the Panama border, has gone from fully forested to just 50% coffee plantations, 20% cattle pastures, and 10% other human environments. It’s terrible to know that there’s only 20% of the land that’s still forested. 

And to make things even more regrettable, the agricultural areas are rife with pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides, which could drastically impact the birds’ food: invertebrates including insects. 

The researchers focused on four species of local birds in their study: orange-billed nightingale-thrush, silver-throated tanager, white-throated thrush and ochre-bellied flycatcher. 

They all can be found in both the forests and the open countryside where they feed on both fruits and invertebrates. The latter is more important to their diet, as the birds need key nutrients like protein and nitrogen. 

Şekercioğlu and his colleague wanted to understand how the 4 bird species were getting their nutrients between the agricultural and forest environments, specifically during the crucial breeding season when proper nutrition is key to sustaining the species. 


coffee farm in San Marcos Tarrazu, Costa Rica


Change of habitat and food 

The researchers hoped to find what the birds have been eating by taking their feathers. They collected 170 feathers from the four bird species to analyze diet and tracked 49 birds’ movements using radio tracking. 

Results showed that the birds’ habitat of choice had a significant effect on their diet. Based on the analysis, three of the four species studied ate significantly fewer invertebrates in coffee plantations than in forests. 

Silver-throated tanagers and the white-throated thrushes were, according to the data, eating twice as much invertebrate biomass in forests than in coffee plantations. 

Şekercioğlu said, “Our results suggest that coffee plantations are deficient in invertebrates preferred by forest generalist birds that forage in both native forest remnants and coffee plantations.” 

Now, since coffee plantations were planted decades ago, researchers didn’t have the data to know how the birds behaved when the forest was still intact. However, looking from the analysis, the team could deduce the birds’ lifestyles. 

According to Şekercioğlu, the birds need to forage frequently in the small forest fragments just to get enough invertebrates. Sometimes they also need to forage in narrow corridors of forests alongside rivers. 

“We think that the more mobile birds like silver-throated tanager and white-throated thrush move constantly to get enough food, especially protein-rich invertebrates,” Şekercioğlu said. 

Şekercioğlu added that bird species that don’t move as much like orange-billed nightingale thrush, which can have lifelong home range sizes as small as an acre, must adapt to coffee plantations and eat fewer invertebrates. Otherwise, they’ll disappear.  

Şekercioğlu said, “These birds’ shifting their feeding to other places may result in new ecological interactions that can themselves have negative consequences. For example, increased competition with birds in these new places or over-predation on a prey species that was formerly not consumed as much.” 



Happening in cacao farms, too 

Coffee plantations aren’t the only ones creating problems. As a product of agriculture, cocoa farms are also bringing problems to birds. 

One thing we should know is, when farmers want to increase cacao production many of them use a system called intensified full-sun monocultures. They include rows of heavily pruned cacao plants grown under the hot sun, with little to no native vegetation.  

Instead of having rich soundscape of a thriving ecosystem, these farms make the areas quiet, with only the hum of a few insects.  

It’s safe to say that conventional cacao operations are rarely bird-friendly. 

According to a 2021 study, an intensive farm with no shade will see a fourfold decline in the total number of bird species there. This can happen because without a diversity of trees, birds lack the insects and fruits they need for food, as well as the vertical tree space to support many different birds. 

Additionally, farms of single type of plant will most likely lead to the application of pesticides and fertilizers to increase yield. 

And it’s not like cocoa farms are there to stay. Cacao trees, in monocultures type of system, will produce for up to 20 years. Then, their productivity will collapse. The soils will be depleted, and the cacao will need to move somewhere else. Usually, the new farms are areas where there’s currently forest, driving deforestation. 

Many studies of declining birds caused by intensive agriculture suggest that forests, their natural habitat, are important. The University of Utah research stated that forest reserves can provide critical resources for birds that have shifted their habitats to the remaining forest and travel through coffee plantations to reach other forest fragments. 



Can we do something about it? 

As a coffee drinker myself, I’d sound sanctimonious to suggest not drinking coffee at all anymore so we can greatly reduce demand.  

So, what we can do is buy bird-friendly coffee, which beans are grown in plantations with more tree cover and forest remnants—the kinds that are advantageous for native birds. Şekercioğlu recommended shade-grown coffee, coffee with bird friendly certification, or coffee from Ethiopia, which he said is among the bird-friendliest. 

Moreover, we can also try to push local governments in tropical regions to prioritize the conservation of intact forest. “It is urgent to prioritize the conservation and regeneration of forest remnants in increasingly human-dominated agricultural areas that continue to replace the world’s most biodiverse tropical forests,” Şekercioğlu said. 

If you’re not a coffee enjoyer and would rather have a warm mug of chocolate; or maybe you like both (I mean, mocha, everyone?), well, similar thing goes to cocoa.  

It’s a good idea to get cocoa that’s certified bird friendly. Because, to get that certification farmers must farm cacao trees under a canopy of native shade trees or next to wild forest that the farmer has committed to preserving. This style of cacao cultivation supports biodiversity and makes production more sustainable long-term. 

Of course, this system of farming has a lower yield, and as a result, the final product sells for a higher price. While I understand that this may not be good for customers who are used to cheaper cocoa, bird-friendly products can help farmers to continue supporting birds and the environment.  

Among other ways to help the birds, buying bird-friendly cocoa or coffee is the least we can do to help. 



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