Wild Read: Coffee is for the Birds?!

Friday, 2 March, 2018

Coffee is for the Birds?

In the world of coffee, there are two main contenders for consumers’ palate preferences – Arabica and Robusta. But while the coffee lovers debate the merits of Arabica’s smooth sweetness versus Robusta’s full-bodied strength, birds in the Western Ghats region of India are weighing in with a debate of their own…

Coffee is one of the most valuable and widely cultivated crops in the tropical regions of the world, with Arabica constituting 60% of global production and Robusta accounting for the other 40%. This production figure is slowly shifting though with increased production of Robusta, which is hardier than Arabica and uses less pesticide. 

The impact on birdlife and biodiversity

Arabica is typically shade-grown, interspersed with native forest, but production has been on the decline over the last 20 years, under threat from climate change and disease. Robusta on the other hand is grown in full sun and is disease-resistant, and many farmers are felling old trees and upper branches to open up the forest canopy to make way for hardier Robusta crops – significantly impacting the landscape, and possibly the environment and diversity of birds and other wildlife too.

And with global demand for coffee growing, a team of researchers from the Wildlife Conservation SocietyPrinceton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to establish which coffee is better for the birds. They looked to the Western Ghats region of India, the world’s sixth largest coffee producer, to establish if the expansion of Robusta production is actually detrimental to birdlife.

The Western Ghats, an ancient mountain range that runs along the western coast of the Indian peninsula, is recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot because of the high number of bird species that are found nowhere else in the world. In total, the researchers counted 79 rainforest bird species living on the coffee farms, including three IUCN Red-Listed (endangered) species – the Alexandrine Parakeet (Psittacula eupatria), the Nilgiri Wood pigeon (Columba elphinstonii) and the Grey-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus).

Bird-friendly coffee beans

So which bean is better for India’s bird population? The study found that both are equally beneficial for biodiversity. The canopy shade trees and forest cover of the Arabica and Robusta agroforests support a wide range of animal species, including birds, butterflies, insects and amphibians – so for birds at least, there’s no reason to choose between Arabica or Robusta. The coffee-loving birds identified in the study included the Malabar grey hornbill  (Ocyceros griseus), the Plum-headed parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala), and the insectivorous Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis).

“An encouraging result of the study is that coffee production in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot, can be a win-win for birds and farmers,” said lead author, Charlotte Chang. 

Read the full study here: Birds and beans: Comparing avian richness and endemism in arabica and robusta agroforests in India’s Western Ghats.

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