The conservation value of growing coffee under trees instead of on open farms is well known, but hasn’t been studied much in Africa. So a University of Utah-led research team studied birds in the Ethiopian home of Arabica coffee and found that “shade coffee” farms are good for birds, but some species do best in forest.

“Ethiopian shade coffee may be the most bird friendly coffee in the world, but a primary forest is irreplaceable for bird conservation, especially for birds of the forest understory,” says doctoral student Evan Buechley, lead author of a new study that will be published online Feb. 11 in the journal Biological Conservation.

“The best coffee for biodiversity is organic shade coffee in Ethiopia, where the coffee is a native species of the forest,” says ornithologist Çağan Şekercioğlu, the study’s senior author and assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah. “It is grown where it belongs in its native habitat with native tree cover and without chemicals.”

“Not all shade coffee is equal,” Şekercioğlu adds. “Because shade coffee is trendy, there are a lot of commercial plantations in the world where they grow shade coffee under exotic trees, not native trees, so they can call it shade coffee. But it’s not as bird friendly as in Ethiopia.”

Coffee berries dry on a screen in the foreground while an Ethiopian woman handles coffee beans in the basket (PHOTO: Evan Buechley, University of Utah.)

Coffee berries dry on a screen in the foreground while an Ethiopian woman handles coffee beans in the basket (PHOTO: Evan Buechley, University of Utah.)

“We hope to see increased marketing of Ethiopia shade coffee so the local farmers get a better deal for their beans by keeping the shade coffee intact rather than converting it to open sun farming” by cutting trees, Şekercioğlu says.

The researchers found that all 19 bird species living closer to the ground in the “understory” of forests also were found in nearby shade coffee farms in Ethiopia. However, understory forest specialists – especially insect-eating birds of the forest understory – were found in much lower numbers in shade coffee.

“Ethiopian shade coffee is even better than other shade coffee because all the native forest bird species that we recorded in the forest understory we also recorded in Ethiopia’s traditional shade coffee plantations,” Şekercioğlu says. “But coffee plantations are not better than forest, because forest still had a lot more relative abundance of forest-dependent birds, which were reduced by nearly 80 percent in numbers in shade coffee.”

Those forest understory specialists “are among the birds most threatened with extinction globally,” Buechley says. “That they are much more frequent in forests implies forests are really important. Shade coffee isn’t a substitute for forests. But shade coffee provides good habitat for many other species, including migrants from Europe and Asia.”

In 2012, Şekercioğlu conducted a global review of scientific literature and found wooded “shade plantations” for coffee and chocolate have greater diversity of birds than open farmland, but that forests remain the best habitats for tropical birds. He says the new study “gets more specific, and shows that there is shade and there is shade.”

The National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, VLIR-Belgian Development Cooperation, Christensen Fund and University of Utah funded the study.

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