New research providing evidence for what we had good reason to believe: just as shade-grown coffee plantations are good for birds, birds are good for forested coffee plantations, especially predators of the Coffee Berry Borer Beetle (Hypothenemus hampei) like Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia). Traci Watson summarizes a paper by Daniel S. Karp et al.

Bocce balls

Brian Hayes meets Stanley Crawford and gets to know the New Mexico acequia system.

The water in an irrigation ditch is a shared resource, like the unfenced common pastures that so famously became so tragic in early-modern England. In fact, the irrigation ditch is even more vulnerable to selfish exploitation than a pasture that’s equally available to all: Those on the upper reaches of the ditch have it within their power to divert all the flow into their own fields, depriving those below. Yet they choose not to do so. What explains their forbearance?

Three and a half cents a pound

Mark Bittman visits an industrial-scale tomato farm in California, and finds it good.

The tomatoes are bred to ripen simultaneously because there is just one harvest. They’re also blocky in shape, the better to move along conveyor belts. Hundreds of types of tomatoes are grown for processing, bred for acidity, disease resistance, use, sweetness, wall thickness, ripening date and so on. They’re not referred to by cuddly names like “Early Girl” but by number: “BQ 205.”

I tasted two; they had a firm, pleasant texture and mild but real flavor, and were better than any tomatoes — even so-called heirlooms — sold in my supermarket.

Some links: 66

  • Steve Adair exlains the ducks-winter wheat connection in the upper Great Plains.
  • Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley visit the banding station and other research facilities at Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. When I was a beginning birder in the 90s, Susan and I visited Powdermill with a group led by Jane Huff, back when “the Bobs” (Mulvihill and Leberman) ran things. They’ve added a lot to the place since then. Birdchat

Next steps

An intriguing piece from a few weeks back by Nicole LaPorte on Kenneth Lander’s THRIVE Farmers Coffee. THRIVE seeks to move beyond the fair trade co-op model, to capture more of the value added by the coffee supply chain (roasters, distributors) for the farmer who got the beans out of the ground in the first place. THRIVE farmers follow organic methods, although not all go through the process of USDA certification.

It’s a small operation now; it will be interesting to see whether it can scale up from its current annual volume, somewhat more than 300,000 pounds of coffee.

Some links: 62/a

Two recent articles pertaining to food labeling: First, Gustave Axelson recaps the labels vying for your attention as you shop for bird-friendly coffee.

…coffee sellers don’t always advertise that their coffee is Bird Friendly. “Probably about only 10 percent of coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms carries the Bird Friendly stamp on the package,” said Robert Rice, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

For example, Starbucks and Whole Foods sell some coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms. But they don’t see the need to make room on their packaging for a separate label that appeals to a relatively small—and silent—minority: birders.

Next, Mark Bittman proposes labels for packaged food that put the information you need right up front. A caption to the print version of the story recommends scanning the standardized list of ingredients in today’s packaging, not necessarily reading it in full:

…if the list of ingredients spans an entire paragraph, chances are you don’t need it.

I like Bittman’s red-yellow-green color codes, and I like the prominence of the Welfare measure. It would be nice to give more visibility to ingredients to which various consumers are allergic or intolerant.


Hugh Powell reminds us of the connection between wine bottle closures and the preservation of biodiversity. Cork prices are crashing, which threatens cork oak plantations on the Iberian peninsula.

Cork trees live for about 250 years, growing in open groves interspersed with meadows of tawny grasses and diverse wildflowers. Once a decade, skilled workers with hatchets carefully slice off an inch-thick jacket of bark, leaving the tree to grow it back. There are cork farmers right now slicing cork from the same trees that their great, great, great grandparents harvested. In all, some 13 billion corks are produced each year, slightly more than half of them in Portugal and the rest in Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It’s a $2 billion industry.

The skilled labor pays well, and the farmers can also keep livestock on the land. While they’re at it, the farmers keep a delicate balance in their forests, avoiding overgrazing but keeping shrubs from taking over, setting controlled fires and putting out fierce ones.

Among conservationists there’s a real fear that as cork prices fall, the cork oak forests will deteriorate or be converted into eucalyptus plantations or Mediterranean resorts.

Not just for coffee farms

Paul Stapleton introduces “evergreen agriculture.” In Africa, intercropping with trees of the genera Sesbania, Gliricidia, Tephrosia, and others improves yields and provides other benefits; dropped leaves from the trees provide natural fertilizer.

The indigenous African acacia (Faidherbia albida) is perhaps the most remarkable of these fertiliser trees. Faidherbia sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves during the early rainy season and remains dormant throughout the crop-growing period. The leaves grow again when the dry season begins. This makes it highly compatible with food crops, because it does not compete with them for light, nutrients or water during the growing season: only its bare branches spread overhead while the food crops grow to maturity.

Bank on it

Catherine A. Lindell, Ryan S. O’Connor, and Emily B. Cohen make a contribution to what we know about songbirds’ nesting success in active and abandoned coffee plantations and active pasture. Specifically, they studied White-throated Thrushes (Turdus assimlis) and Clay-colored Thrushes (T. grayi) in Las Alturas reserve (for four breeding seasons) and Rio Negro, an active coffee farm (unfortunately, only for one season).

These two species of birds, congeners of our American Robin, do not migrate north to the U.S. to breed (there are some records in south Texas for Clay-colored Thrush), in contrast to the charismatic migratory wood warblers (used to promote shade-grown coffee) that feed in forests and plantation overstories in the winter months. The thrushes of the research prefer to nest on the ground or low in a tree. The slightly surprising results of the paper are that nesting success is only indirectly affected by type of land cover, and the effect is through how well the terrain provides concealment from predators. In particular, nesting in a steep bank in pastureland provides the greatest protection (the nest can’t be detected from below, and cattle can’t trample it).

There is a scintilla of a hint that the birds can be more successful in an active coffee plantation—more humans means fewer predators—but keep in mind that only one year of data is available.

I’ll let the authors summarize the research’s conservation implications:

Conservation recommendations based on land-cover type would be relatively easy if we could rank land-covers as to the quality of habitat they provide for target species and if rankings were consistent across species. Our results indicate these conditions are not met for these species.