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African Pygmy Kingfisher
Photo Credit: Evan Buechley, University of Utah

A cup of coffee may be just the thing to perk you up first thing in the morning but in the time it takes you to down that skinny macchiato hundreds of acres of tropical forest will be lost along with the birds and other wildlife that depend on it to make way for coffee plantations. Coffee that is grown in the sun produces faster, higher yields of coffee and prevents the spread of fungal diseases.

In recent years consumers have become more aware of the benefits of the traditional production of shade coffee where the coffee bushes are planted under a canopy of trees in moderate shade. Although some of the forest understory is cleared a thriving habitat for wildlife remains. Consumption of shade has been particularly encouraged by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center through its Bird Friendly® seal of approval.

However, although shade coffee has become increasingly trendy not all shade coffee is equal. Some shade coffee is grown under canopies of non-native trees and although it is promoted as bird friendly a team of researchers from the University of Utah set out to prove that Ethiopian shade coffee grown on plantations shaded by native trees is the most bird friendly of them all.

The study was conducted in shade coffee plantations and forests in southwest Ethiopia's Oromia region. The team analysed 1,605 birds from 51 species and found that all 51 species were found in shade coffee, including 19 also found in forests. Forests and shade coffee plantations had the same level of bird diversity and shade coffee farms had twice the species richness of forests. Although the ornithologists found that Arabica coffee farms shaded by tree canopies in Ethiopia are almost as bird-friendly as forests, the number of birds that live below the canopy of forests were greatly reduced 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," added ornithologist Çağan Şekercioğlu, the study's senior author and assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah. "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."

"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 the study that will be published in the journal Biological Conservation.

The research team also highlighted the importance of shade coffee for migratory birds from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, which were found only in the coffee plantations.

Despite the public awareness the damage open coffee plantations can cause to the environment, the global need for coffee production is growing and the proportion of land used to cultivate shade coffee has actually decreased in the past 20 years.

Ethiopia is coming under increasing pressure to convert more coffee production to open sunny plantations and it is hoped that this study will help make the argument to keep traditional coffee farming methods

The biologists said more research is needed to learn if forest species use shade coffee farms to breed, or if they are unable to because of predators or lack of food.

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