BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor – Jamaica Observer
FOR the Jamaican coffee farmer, birds can be more than colourful feathers and cheerful tweets; They can be the saviours of an industry which, though internationally acclaimed for the quality of its product, has been in decline for more years than some people care to admit.
For one thing, they prey on the crop’s two main pests — coffee berry borer and coffee leaf miner — saving the farmer anywhere between US$200 and US$500 per hectare per year in pesticide costs.
What’s more, the bird coffee can be marketed as eco-friendly or organic and potentially fetch a higher price than the crop grown without birds.
“Birds can reduce damage by coffee berry borer by 50 per cent in Jamaica,” wildlife biologist at Humboldt State University in California, Dr Matt Johnson, said. “By controlling pests, birds can increase berry production and can boost farmer income by over US$750 per acre.”
Johnson specialises in the habitat ecology of wild birds and has done extensive research on birds in coffee farms in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains and in the southern parish of St Elizabeth, as well as in Kenya and southern India.
“If a coffee farmer can have trees on his farm — trees on the edge of the farm, shade trees in the farm, or a patch of bush or forest near the farm, any or all of those — that’s gonna bring in more birds and the birds will help control the pests in the coffee,” he told the Jamaica Observer on the weekend.
“And if the farmer can market that coffee as bird-friendly coffee, it can fetch a higher price on the market,” he continued.
Dr Johnson was among a distinguished list of presenters who addressed Saturday’s opening day of the 21st International Conference of BirdsCaribbean at Knutsford Court Hotel. The topic of his presentation was ‘Why birds matter: The role of ecosystems services, economics, and ethics in bird conservation’.
Jamaican terrestrial biologist Damion Whyte presented a similar topic — ‘The effect of the exclusion of birds on anthropods within three coffee farms in the Blue Mountains’. The three were Wallenford, Campbell and Sharp. Wallenford uses sun coffee management, which means there are no shade trees among the crop, while the latter two use shade coffee management. Whyte explained that his research showed that the shade option is less labour intensive, has more birds eating the pests, has a high level of biodiversity, and low yields compared to the sun method.
He cautioned, however, that the higher yields of the sun management method are only short-lived.
“After five to 10 years the soil will lose its productivity and there will be more pests, which means there will be need for more pesticides and the potential for having pesticide, residue on the crop increases,” he told the Observer.
Also, he said, the absence of shade trees among coffee will lead to severe landslides when it rains because coffee roots don’t hold the soil as well as the more hardy fruit and lumber trees.
Former president of local bird conservation group BirdLife Jamaica, and director of Coffee Roasters, John Fletcher, attested to the benefits of having birds on his farm in St Thomas.
“What they particularly feed on, which helps the coffee grower, is the coffee berry borer, a tiny little beetle, so the more you can encourage birds into your coffee, the better yields you’re gonna get from your coffee trees,” he told the newspaper. He added that there is no threat of the birds eating the berries.