Gold Standard

Gold Standard

When it comes to protecting natural havens for bird species, shade-grown-coffee farms are second only to virgin forest. A writer's journey through Nicaragua illustrates just how key coffee farms can be for the well-being of a certain warbler.

By T. Edward Nickens
Published: May-June 2011

At El Jaguar, started by Lili's father, the family lost the farm during the Sandinista-Contra war, when armies from both sides bivouacked in its dense virgin forests. Lili and Georges, a Swiss-born agricultural engineer with a salt-and-pepper Clark Gable moustache, bought the property back in 1991, and today El Jaguar's 250 acres are home to small plots of shade-grown coffee tucked into the forest. Registered with the Nicaraguan federal government as a private nature reserve, it is one of the smallest of Nicaragua's 33 Important Bird Areas (IBAs), lands formally identified through BirdLife International's IBA program, of which Audubon is the North American partner. More than 280 bird species have been counted on the farm, including seven that are considered globally threatened--among them such North American breeders as golden-cheeked warblers and the near threatened painted bunting. "We don't have seven globally threatened species in all of North Carolina," Smalling laughs, shaking his head. "Here there is that and more on a single small farm."

One morning, as dawn breaks over the mile-high Cordillera Isabelia, I head out with Smalling, Lili, and Georges to work a line of listening points spread throughout the farm. Working with the multinational Golden-Winged Warbler Conservation Initiative, Lili and Georges monitor 12 sites on El Jaguar in an effort to see what type of habitat the birds frequent. The researchers seek individual warblers and determine what's attracting them--the percentage of canopy cover, the presence of mosses and bromeliads, even the numbers of dry, hanging leaves where golden-wings tend to feed. Each listening post is situated at least 500 yards from its closest neighboring site, so running the point counts requires a nearly two-mile hike through steep coffee patches and soaring cloudforests.

Tunneling through head-high coffee bushes that edge a curtain of primary forest, we hear the bubbly, gonglike calls of the Montezuma oropendola and the Wilson's warbler's nasally chip from tall, broccoli-like trees. This kind of intersection between field and forest is prime habitat. "Golden-winged warblers are demanding birds," Smalling explains. On their wintering grounds, they are drawn to a specific cover type: forest openings such as those created when massive trees crash to the ground, blowing holes in the cloudforest canopy. The tangle of undergrowth that sprouts in the sunny gaps isn't unlike the shrubby habitats the birds frequent in Minnesota's tamarack woods or North Carolina's hawthorn balds. "Where we find them in Central America mimics very closely where we find them on their North American breeding grounds," Smalling continues. "They show up in the same elevations, with the same kinds of complex, open structure with lots of edge." Thousands of miles apart, the birds face similar challenges: lack of the tangled thickets they require for survival.

Shade-grown coffee, however, is planted and harvested beneath a forest canopy that provides birds with a wide range of critical needs. There are insects and fruits to eat. Mosses and ferns provide nest spots for the resident birds. They can rest on perches and hide from predators in niches. "A shade-coffee canopy with diverse tree species provides very high-quality habitat for many bird species, both native and migrants," says Robert Rice, a researcher with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Coffee plantations with a diverse canopy cover of greater than 40 percent are second only to undisturbed forest in terms of bird species richness.

El Jaguar coffee is raised under a voluntary, strict conservation plan as a registered nature preserve, stipulating that 80 percent of the land remains uncut. In fact, the 13 coffee patches at El Jaguar were once cattle pastures and small bean and corn fields, so no new forest was cleared to create them. But cloudforest such as that found at El Jaguar is even cooler than and as wet as a typical rainforest, and coffee plants here are particularly susceptible to disease.

"It's critical to have economic stability in those areas that are maintaining the habitats that remain," explains Alex Morgan, a sustainable agriculture specialist for the Rainforest Alliance. To help pay for such outreach--and further its support of conservation science--El Jaguar offers a pair of cabins for visiting scientists and perhaps 200 serious birders and ecotourists each year. Simply appointed with a bed, kitchenette, and fresh flowers, mine looked out over lush gardens alive with butterflies. I enjoyed views of cloudforest and coffee patches framed by banana trees. Furthermore, there's an open-arms invitation to join the Chavarria Duriaux family. One morning coffee pickers join us for breakfast--fresh fruit and tortillas cooked on a fire. Topping it off is a creamy, pungent farm cheese. One night we all dine on oxtail stew. Our discussion jumps from the subtleties of coffee bean grading to the parallels Smalling sees between the places he finds golden-winged warblers in the North Carolina mountains and those in El Jaguar's patchy forests.

As we talk, Lili nods her head quietly, fingers interlaced beneath her chin, savoring the role her small family farm plays in the sunrise choruses of the southern Appalachians. "Are these our birds?" she asks, smiling. "Are they your birds? No. They are not ours or yours. They cannot survive just here or just there. They must have both. They need all of us."


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