Last spring, a colony of cliff swallows decided that the front of our house was the place to build their nests. I have tolerated the family of barn swallows that followed the house to the farm when we moved it more than twenty years ago. Their descendants have returned annually and built new nests high under the eaves. I don’t enjoy the messes they make, but considering how many mosquitoes they eat, I put up with them. The cliff swallows, howeve , went too far. The first arrivals built five nests over the large window on the south side of our house. It drove the house cats crazy. We removed the nests. The swallows rebuilt them. Their kids moved home with their new mates and added on to the original nests. We removed them. They rebuilt them. I am willing to avoid standing under the peak of the barn roof if they nest there, but having a whole colony of swallows over the front window was more than I could stand. With persistence we prevailed and they found a new nesting area.
Then, however, a pair of barn swallows decided a spot right over the back door inside the garage would be an ideal place to raise a family. Every time I opened the door to back out the car, they swooped in and refused to leave.
In spite of the annoyance of being dive-bombed by swallows and having droppings on the hood of my car, I love birds. I love the singing of birds which live with us on our farm. I love to hear the whistles of the orioles, the chipping of sparrows and the screech of the Swainson’s hawks that have nested in the trees of our shelterbelt for as long as I can remember. I even enjoy the rowdy squawking and creaking of black birds in the spring. I understand farmers frustration with the feathered hoards that strip sunflowers bare and geese that trample swaths of ripe grain into the ground. I also understand the services that birds provide us. Studies have shown that fields which are bordered by song bird habitat have fewer insects in them. Hawks and owls eat rodents. Crows and magpies clean up dead things. Finches eat thistle and dandelion seeds. Birds play an important role in spreading seeds which provide the rich plant diversity of the forests and prairies. Many scientist believe that the health of the bird population is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem as a whole.
If that’s the case, we probably should take note. The Audubon Society keeps tabs on the numbers of common birds. Their annual bird counts indicate that over the last forty years the numbers of many common birds have declined. The birds listed on the Audubon’s list of common birds in decline have lost on average of half of their population since 1967. Some have declined as much as 80 percent. They are not considered to be endangered, but their shrinking numbers is a reason for concern. Some of the birds on the list which you might recognize are the common grackle, the horned lark, the northern pintail duck and the ruffled grouse.
While pesticides and loss of nesting habitat is listed as a reason for the decline of our singing friends, it might surprise you to find out the coffee is also considered a reason.
Coffee kills song birds? Well, not exactly. But the change in coffee production from small, shade-grown farms to large sun-grown coffee plantations has significantly reduced the wintering grounds for the birds which spend their summers here. To grow coffee faster, mechanically harvest it and sell it at a lower price, large areas of forests in Mexico, Central and South America have been cleared and planted to coffee. Scientists estimate that sun-grown coffee fields are the home to 97 percent fewer birds than the forests in which shade-grown coffee is produced.
Even though the majority of coffee is grown on plantations cleared from the forest, the sale of shade-grown and organic coffee is on the rise. Many coffee companies now sell Fair Trade Coffee. The Fair Trade seal insures that the coffee farmers growing and picking the coffee are paid fairly and that bird habitat is protected.
I think shade-grown coffee tastes better. I enjoy it even more knowing it preserves the trees where the Baltimore orioles nesting next to my garden make their winter home.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains