Migratory Birds and Coffee

Western Tanager
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Michael Fish

For many of us, the day has not truly begun until we hold a warm mug of richly flavored coffee in our hands. But how often have you considered where that coffee comes from and how its culture impacts wild Utah?

We tend to think of migratory birds as our residents who take a winter vacation to the south every year. But it is more truly the other way around. They are representatives from groups of tropical birds who venture north to take advantage of less crowded nesting and a seasonal abundance of food for their young. For instance, of the 49 species of true tanagers, only 4 summer in the United States. Much of our coffee originates in Central and South America and its production directly affects birds who fly north to nest in Utah.

Traditionally, coffee bushes are grown under a diverse canopy. Some of the trees in the overstory yield timber, others fix nitrogen and still others like papaya provide food. This multi-tiered habitat supports a wide variety of birds that is only exceeded by undisturbed tropical forest itself.

About twenty years ago, coffee production changed radically with the development of varieties that tolerate full sun. This has allowed huge areas of land to be cleared of forest and planted exclusively to row after row of coffee bushes that demand intensive management. More fertilizer and pesticides are needed leading to toxic runoff. Soil erosion increases. Much lovely bird habitat has been destroyed for this barren coffee monoculture. Many migratory bird populations are in trouble due to the loss of their forested winter habitats.

But there is hope for coffee lovers because many farmers still grow coffee in the traditional way. These grower-owned farms tend to be smaller and provide a more reliable income for the farmer due to the diversity of crops. Soil quality is maintained while providing critical habitat for tropical frogs, insects, plants and birds. When purchasing coffee, look for bird friendly or shade grown or certification by Rainforest Alliance or Smithsonian. Our warblers, tanagers and thrushes will thank you.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Michael Fish
Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Shade-Grown Coffee, National Audubon Website, http://web4.audubon.org/bird/at_home/coffee/

Song Bird Coffee, American Birding Association, http://www.aba.org/shadecoffee/songbird.html

Some Coffee-related Resources, American Birding Association, http://www.aba.org/shadecoffee/whattodo.html#Coffee-related%20Resources

Why Migratory Birds are Crazy for Coffee, Migrants and Coffee: What’s the Connection?, National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution, http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/MigratoryBirds/Fact_Sheets/default.cfm?fxsht=1

Why Migratory Birds Are Crazy for Coffee, Atlanta Audubon Society, http://atlantaaudubon.org/aaswww/sgc/sgcfacts.htm

Smithsonian-Certified Shade Grown & Bird Friendly Coffee, Caffe Ibis, https://caffeibis.com/

Medusahead Rye

Medusahead Rye Infestation
Courtesy and
Copyright © Steve Dewey

Courtesy and
Copyright © Steve Dewey

Courtesy and
Copyright © Steve Dewey

Weedy plants of old world origin threaten natural areas throughout the United States. An invading plant colonizing a completely new area often lacks the insects, diseases and herbivores that kept it in check back in its native homeland. If the introduced plant grows and spreads vigorously, it can spell disaster for the native inhabitants of its new home. With no natural controls in place, it may outcompete native plants and greatly diminish biodiversity. Disturbed or degraded habitats are most susceptible to invasion by Eurasian weeds.

Utah hosts many invasive weeds causing problems throughout the state. One Eurasian grass threatening sagebrush habitat and rangeland is medusahead rye. Medusahead rye probably came to the United States as a seed contaminant in the 1880’s. The seed head is heavy, so on its own, cannot spread far. But the seeds do have a ticket for dispersal: tufted hairs which cling and readily attach to livestock and vehicles. Once on site, medusahead grows vigorously, crowding out other plants.

Medusahead tissue contains abundant silica which slows its decomposition. The accumulation of dead material forms a dense thatch that smothers other plants. This dry thatch layer can also fuel wildfires. In addition, the gritty silica makes medusahead unpalatable, so both domestic and wild grazing animals avoid eating it. Infested ranches can lose 3/4 of their grazing capacity.

Sage grouse are already in trouble due to habitat loss, and medusahead has invaded more than 10 million acres of the sage brush that sage grouse call home. Once invaded by medusahead, sagebrush habitat is very difficult to restore. The best hope is to prevent or at least hinder its spread through management using controlled burns, herbicides and careful grazing. Non-native, invasive plants are among the most serious threats to our natural world and the habitats and species we know and love.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Images: Courtesy Steve Dewey & www.invasive.org
Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, University of Georgia
Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

The United States National Arboretum. formerly http://www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/invasives.html

National Invasive Species Information Center. http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/plants/medusahead.shtml

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. http://www.fseee.org/component/content/article/1002329

Utah State University Cooperative Extension. http://extension.usu.edu/cache/files/uploads/Medusahead%202-10.pdf

USA National Phenology Network

Courtesy USA National Phenology Network

The study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events is phenology. It is the calendar of nature. This includes when plants flower, when birds migrate and when crops mature. Phenology is relevant to interactions between organisms, seasonal timing and large-scale cycles of water and carbon. Phenology is important to us for many reasons. Farmers need to know when to plant and harvest crops and when to expect pests to emerge. Resource managers use it to monitor and predict drought and assess fire risk. Vacationers want to know when the best fall colors will be or when the wildflower blooms will peak. Timing varies but we can discern patterns.

The USA National Phenology Network monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals and landscapes. They encourage people to observe phenological events such as flowering, migrations and egg laying. The Phenology Network provides a place to enter, store and share these observations, which are then compiled and analyzed nationwide. Participants range from individual observers in their own backyards to professional scientists monitoring long-term plots. My husband and I monitor leafing and flowering of lilacs, a key species in the program.

These observations support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists and others. This includes decisions related to allergies, wildfires, pest control, and water management.

I urge you to participate. The National Phenology Network has many public, private and citizen partners. It is a great way to become involved in a nation-wide effort to better understand our environment. All this information and much more is available at the National Phenology website, to which there is a link from our Wild About Utah website.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

USA National Phenology Network, http://www.usanpn.org/

North American Bird Phenology Program, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/BecomeAParticipant.cfm

Sage Grouse, Pronghorn Antelope and Fences

Sage Grouse, Pronghorn Antelope and Fences: Greater Sage Grouse, Courtesy US FWS, images.fws.gov, Stephen Ting, Photographer
Greater Sage Grouse
Courtesy US FWS
Stephen Ting, Photographer

As Robert Frost famously wrote in his poem, Mending Wall, “Good fences make good neighbors”.

Fences keep livestock from crops, children from traffic and delineate boundaries. In the intermountain West, fences are important to keep livestock where we want them and away from where we don’t. But wildlife of open sagebrush habitat did not evolve with fences. Sage Grouse and Pronghorn Antelope have had a particularly difficult time adapting.

Sage Grouse are stout, chicken-like birds found only in sagebrush, whose foliage features prominently in their diet. Sage Grouse were once abundant, but their numbers have plummeted due to habitat loss. Today they are candidates for listing as an endangered species. In flight, these large bodied birds like to skim over the sagebrush canopy and so doing, careen right into fences. One Utah study attributed 1/5 of Sage Grouse deaths to fence collisions.

[Kevin Colver recording: https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections]

Courtesy US FWS
James C. Leupold, Photographer

At dawn during the spring, male Sage Grouse congregate on ancestral dancing grounds to attract mates. The birds fly to these lek areas before sunrise so may not be able to see a fence before they collide. Other areas of special concern include the crest of low hills and the midst of wide open flats. Where grouse are common, flagging a fence or otherwise making it more visible can help considerably to reduce airborne fence collisions.

For Pronghorn Antelope, however, the top of the fence is not the issue. They are the swiftest game animal in North America. As with bison, market hunting in the 19th century decimated their populations. This trend has reversed, but here also, fences are a problem. Pronghorn are sprinters, not hurdlers and rarely jump a barrier over 3 feet tall. They choose to go under or through fencelines. A simple solution for barbed wire fences is to string smooth wire for the bottom strand at least 18 inches above the ground. This simple fence fix enables pronghorns to scoot below the fence unscathed as they migrate between winter and summer grounds

The perspective of Pronghorn Antelope and Sage Grouse could be summed up in the lyrics from a Cole Porter song: Don’t fence me in.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.



Photos: Courtesy US FWS: Images.fws.gov
Audio: Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:


Lives of North American Birds. Kenn Kaufman. 1996, Houghton Mifflin Company., http://www.amazon.com/American-Peterson-Natural-History-Companions/dp/0395770173

Don’t Fence Me In: If sage-grouse had a song it would be “Don’t Fence Me In”, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, http://www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/ecs/biology/sagegrouse/dontfence.html

Safer Fencing Can Help Save Western Birds, Environmental Defense Fund, http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?contentID=9126