I wrote in Thursday’s paper about the challenges that Colombian coffee growers face from climate shifts on their mountaintop farms, and how Cenicafé, the national coffee institute, is doing research to breed coffee plants to better resist warmer, wetter weather.
Most everything at Cenicafé’s lush mountain campus in western Colombia is coffee-centric. There are chemists who analyze the brew’s chemical content to understand what mix of molecules makes for great flavor. There are gardens filled with coffee plants from all over the world for breeding new heartier variants. There are geneticists studying the coffee genome.
But Cenicafé scientists are also studying a little bright blue bird whose plight has gained widespread attention in the United States: the cerulean warbler.
The cerulean warbler is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species. Once plentiful in the United States, its population is decreasing faster than that of any other eastern songbird.
A big part of the problem is that much of the cerulean warbler’s breeding ground in states like West Virginia and Tennessee has been destroyed by forest-felling and mountaintop coal mining. Conservation groups are fighting to save the species, and its plight features prominently in Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, “Freedom.”
So what does this have to do with Colombian coffee? It turns out that the cerulean warbler winters in Colombia and other countries in the northern part of South America. And it seems to prefer the forest canopy of its mountain coffee-growing regions.
So scientists are working to better understand the warbler’s winter habitat, and to make sure it is preserved.
Traditionally, Colombian coffee is “shade grown,” meaning that the coffee plants live scattered among much taller trees. But globally there is a trend toward cutting down trees to cultivate “sun grown” coffee because it is easier to raise and harvest coffee using machines if no trees are present.
Coffee fans say that shade-grown coffee is superior, with a more subtle, complex taste. For the cerulean warbler, shade-grown coffee may in a way be better too, leaving intact a crucial winter habitat of a disappearing species.