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.

Waiting for a train

Michael Schaub points to Linton Weeks’ preview of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 and launches a zinger:

(Nothing against Ayn Rand, of course. Without her, bitter nerds who like feeling superior to everyone despite the fact that their taste in prose is less advanced than most border collies would have no favorite author.)

But it is Jennifer Burns of the University of Virginia, quoted by Weeks, who lands the solider blow:

On the one hand, Rand’s popularity points to the vigor and growth of the American right, particularly as seen in the Tea Party. On the other hand, it points to a certain intellectual weakness amid the conservative movement, given that their leading intellectual is a novelist who has been dead for almost 30 years.

Shade-grown coffee: state of play

The Birding Community E-Bulletin points to two reports: first, a recent summary by Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center on the supply of and market for the SMBC’s branded Bird Friendly® Coffee. It’s interesting that nearly 40% comes from Peru; Mexico and Guatemala are other major producers. On the demand side, nearly 350,000 pounds were consumed in 2008 (the last period for which full-year figures are available), divided almost evenly between Japan and the United States.

Amid the clutter of labelling and badging at the turn of the decade, the SMBC established criteria for coffee agriculture specifically designed to protect bird life, and chose to protect them with a mark. These criteria go beyond relatively simple organic certification. Rice’s precis:

… the coffee is:

  • Certified organic
  • Certified shade-grown (according to SMBC criteria developed in 1997 and based on scientific fieldwork)

Criteria include: a minimum canopy height of 12 meters; a species list of at least 10 trees in addition to the major or “backbone” species; at least 40% foliage density; and three strata or layers of vegetation that provide structural diversity. Criteria apply to the coffee production area itself, and industry and certification specialists consider them to be the strictest shade standards in the world.

Rice states that growers see a 5 to 10 cent per pound premium for meeting BFC standards, in addition to any price bump for being organic.

Unfortunately, as Ezra Fieser reports, that price differential has narrowed over the past few years from a 30-40% markon mid-decade to about 20% now. This trend is driving farmers back to conventional agricultural methods. According to the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education, costs to the organic grower run 15% higher (certification fees, losses to pests), while yields are 40% lower. As my old B school teacher liked to say, “Sell below cost, and in the long run, you’re out of business.”

Connecting the dots

The Economist summarizes recent publications by Adamatzky and Jones and Atsushi Tero that use Physarum polycephalum, a species of myxomycetes (a/k/a slime mold, probably my favorite simple organisms), to model the tradeoffs between efficiency and redundancy in designing macro networks, like rail lines or motorways.

Of course, neither Dr Tero nor Dr Adamatzky is suggesting that rail and road networks should be designed by slime moulds. What they are proposing is that good and complex solutions can emerge from simple rules, and that this principle might be applied elsewhere.

There’s no “I” in “theater”

We are heading to the wire!! Make those reservations, see those shows, do those ballots! And be thankful that there’s no chance of WATCH being sold to Dan Snyder, because y’all are a great team!

—Weekly report to WATCH adjudicators for 28 October 2009

Although the adjudication coordinator is dangerously close to exhausting her quota of exclamation marks.

One more good reason

Newly-published research by Shalene Jha and Christopher W. Dick indicates that traditional shade-grown coffee farms provide yet another ecosystem service: maintenance of genetic diversity of trees in the landscape. The paper studies Miconia affinis in Chiapas state, Mexico. The inference is that natural seed dispersers (birds and bats), harbored by shade-grown plantations, promote the needed gene flow, and that the farms knit together fragmented forest patches.

Some links: 30

Jonathon D. Colman in his column Everyday Environmentalist posts a richly-linked article on shopping for sustainable coffee (unfortunately, a couple of the links are broken already). He makes the connection—noteworthy if perhaps obvious on a moment’s reflection—between climate change and the deforestation associated with sun coffee.

One incremental change

Bobolinks and other migratory songbirds are getting clobbered by pesticide use outside of the United States, beyond the protections offered (such as they are) by federal regulations, as Bridget Stutchbury notes in an op-ed piece for the Times.

Since the 1980s, pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America as countries have expanded their production of nontraditional crops to fuel the demand for fresh produce during winter in North America and Europe. Rice farmers in the region use monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbofuran, all agricultural chemicals that are rated Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are highly toxic to birds, and are either restricted or banned in the United States.

Stutchbury cites research by Rosalind Renfrew of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

What’s a consumer to do? Look for shade-grown, organic coffee, and organic bananas. Conventionally-grown bananas are typically produced “with one of the highest pesticide levels of any tropical crop.”

I found organic bananas at my local Giant Food next to to the conventionally-cropped fruit, shrouded in plastic bags to discourage price tag switching.

More than a cappucino

Starbucks is making strides in areas beyond finding creative, entertaining ways to separate you from your cash in its stores. Continuing to deepen its involvement with the agricultural sources of its drinks, the company is in the middle of a three-year partnership with the Earthwatch Institute supporting research into aspects of sustainable coffee production. The current project sends volunteers to member fincas of Coope Tarrazú, a co-op in Costa Rica. Using GIS technology, field workers are establishing baseline maps of resources (soil condition, water quality, etc.).

The volunteer effort supports the research of Karen Holl of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Holl’s research interests in Costa Rica include strategies for re-establishing forests in land that has been cleared for pasture.

…we have established 16, 1-ha sites in southern Costa Rica. We are testing questions about “applied nucleation” by planting islands of native tree seedlings to facilitate recovery and studying the effect of the amount of surrounding forest cover on ecosystem recovery. We are collecting extensive data on seed dispersal, seed fate, vegetation establishment, and seedling dynamics.

Also involved in the Costa Rica projects is Catherine Lindell of Michigan State University, who has published studies of habitat use by various bird species in Costa Rica.