The research suggests that traditional cultivation practices there support local forest bird biodiversity better than any other coffee farms in the world.
In Ethiopia, coffee is traditionally grown on plantations shaded by native trees. These farms boasted more than 2.5 times as many bird species as adjacent mountain forest, according to a study slated for publication February 11 in the journal Biological Conservation.
"That was a surprise," says Cagan H. Sekercioglu, a biologist at the University of Utah and a National Geographic Society grant recipient who worked on the study with his PhD student Evan Buechley. Further, "all 19 understory bird species we sampled in the forest were present in the coffee farms too, and that just doesn't happen elsewhere."
Other studies have shown that shade coffee farms provide better bird habitat than full-sun plantations, but the effect may be more prominent in Ethiopia because farmers there tend to use native trees instead of the exotic species popular elsewhere.
Why It Matters
The new study may be the first of bird biodiversity on Ethiopian coffee farms, because the country is relatively remote and poor. Ethiopian coffee farmers face pressure—as in many countries—to convert more coffee production to full-sun plantations.
Growing coffee in the sun can reduce the risk of fungal disease, cuts labor, and can yield more coffee beans, but at the costs of lower-quality coffee that fetches less per pound and degraded habitat for wildlife, says Sekercioglu.
The Big Picture
Scientists found all but one of nine species of migratory birds on the coffee farms, but not in adjacent forest. Sekercioglu suspects that the open structure of the farms was more inviting to the birds than the denser natural forest because it more closely resembles the habitat they are used to in the north.
Still, Sekercioglu cautions that "coffee farms cannot simply replace forest for habitat." Although all forest understory bird species were also represented on the farms, their number of individuals was about 80 percent lower. (See how coffee changed America.)
The team would like to measure how birds in the canopy above the coffee farms are faring, since they only measured birds caught in the understory, or the first ten feet above the ground. The scientists also want to study long-term the breeding success and population changes of birds in forest versus shade coffee.
Sekercioglu also suggests that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center or the Rainforest Alliance, which certify bird-friendly coffee from other countries, should consider extending their programs to Ethiopia. Certification allows farmers to recoup a price premium, which can help deter the impulse to convert farms to full sun or otherwise develop their land.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested the Ethiopian farms had the highest bird biodiversity anywhere, but it has been updated to clarify that the farms have the highest relative bird biodiversity.