Birds Protect Costa Rico’s Coffee Crops

October 8, 2013 by  
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Millions of people around the world could not imagine starting the day without a cup of coffee. Coffee production plays a major role in the economy of a number of Central and South American countries, including Costa Rica, where ongoing research has highlighted the role local birds play in protecting one of the most lucrative crops in the world – coffee. Stanford University graduate student Daniel Karp and a group of researchers recently published a paper in Ecology Letters where they detail how birds control populations of coffee borer beetles (Hypothenemus hampei) in Costa Rican coffee plantations, increasing the yield per hectare significantly.

Originating in Africa, the coffee borer beetle has spread around the world and is found wherever coffee is grown. This small brown beetle is very destructive and difficult to control, causing an estimated $500 million in damage every year. The female beetle burrows its way into the coffee berry and lays up to 50 eggs. Little white maggots hatch from the eggs and consume the coffee berry from the inside. In coffee plantations where patches of rainforest habitat were left undisturbed, damage by coffee borer beetles was noted to be much less resulting in higher yields.

In determining what contribution birds are making to the coffee economy of Costa Rica, researchers carried out calculations on how much yield could be expected if there were no borer beetles to contend with. They then made a comparison between infested plants left in their natural condition, and infested plants grown inside bird-proof enclosures. It was concluded that, taking the season into account, birds improve yield per hectare by between $75 and $310.

In order to determine which birds were eating the beetles, researchers took bird faeces back to the laboratory at Stanford to test the DNA. One of the bird species identified as a coffee borer beetle eater is the yellow warbler. The research results will be used to show Costa Rican coffee farmers that it is advantageous to protect rainforest habitat on their land – both for the birds and for the coffee crop.

Crested Caracara (Polyborus plancus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Crested Caracara (Polyborus plancus) has a body length of between 19 to 23 inches and so is a relatively large bird. The wingspan is four-foot in length and the average bird weighs between the region of one and a half to three and a half pounds. The variance of weight is dependant on where the bird lives and what food is available to it.

The habitat that the Crested Caracaras prefers is open flat countryside, for instance river edges, ranches, savannas and pastures. At times you may find them in marshy areas and in forests. The Caracaras can be found in southwestern United States and Florida, South America and Central America. In the falcon group, the Crested Caracara is the most terrestrial bird and spends a large amount of its time on the ground.

The Caracara feeds normally on dead animals but if the opportunity comes up they will take the advantage of other food sources such as small mammals, amphibians, turtles, reptiles, fish, crab, eggs, worms, insects and birds that are nesting. The Crested Caracara will either take food from other birds or they will hunt for food off the ground.

When it comes to nesting season, the Crested Caracaras will build a large stick nest off the ground in palms, trees or cacti, or on the ground. The Caracaras is unusual in that way, as other members of the falcon family do not construct nests. The female will lay 2 to 3 eggs and will incubate them up to 28 to 32 days. Unlike most other birds, the young caracaras have a much longer fledging period and can take up to three months before they can fly as independent birds.

The scientific name, ‘Polyborus plancus’, given to the Crested Caracara comes from ‘poly’, which is the Greek word for variety or many; ‘boros’, which means gluttonous and that is easily seen by bird’s voracious appetite; and the Latin word ‘plancus’, which Aristotle used as a word for an eagle. The common name given to the bird, caracara, comes from the South Americans and is so called because of the call the bird makes. Other names the Crested Caracara has been given is the Caracara Eagle, Mexican Eagle, Audubon’s Caracara, King Buzzard and the Mexican Buzzard. The previous scientific name that was given to the bird was Caracara cheriway.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

February 9, 2009 by  
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For many, the turkey is simply a large bird that you eat traditionally at Thanksgiving dinner. Few realize that there are two different species of turkey and that the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is the heaviest of the two. The Wild Turkey is found naturally in North America and the other species – known as Ocellated Turkey – can be found in Central and South America. While the Ocellated Turkey is easily domesticated and has even been successfully introduced to Europe, it has been found that the best way to introduce Wild Turkeys to other regions is to capture wild groups and then release them at the desired location.

The Wild Turkey is a large, darkly coloured, ground-dwelling bird. The head and neck are bare and the head is bluish in colour while the throat is a strong red. These birds have a short, slightly down-curved bill and long, powerful reddish-orange legs. On the head there are a number of fleshy growths known as caruncles. There is also a fleshy flap on the turkey’s bill which expands and becomes engorged with blood when the turkey is excited. The average bird is between 110-115 cm long with a wingspan of 125-144 cm. The male is generally larger than the female and has red wattles on the throat and neck as well as spurs on their lower legs. Male turkeys may also have red, green copper, bronze and shiny gold on their feathers while females are quite dull. Turkeys have a long, fan-shaped tail with glossy bronze wings. The Wild Turkey of North America has a chestnut-brown tail while the Ocellated Turkey of Central and South America has a white tail. This makes it easy to distinguish between the resident wild birds and those re-introduced as a farm animal by European settlers who had bred with original Mexican stock in Europe.

While the most commonly recognised turkey sound is a ‘gobble’ noise, the bird is capable of making many other sounds. During breeding season, Wild Turkeys move out of heavily wooded areas to places with greater visibility. This may include pastures, fields, open woods and sometimes even quiet roads. These open areas give the birds a quick means of escape. The hens usually nest near the base of a tree or shrub, though they may also make use of tall grass. When they are not nesting, Wild Turkeys generally roost in trees. The males are polygamous and they may have as many as five hens in their territory. After performing several courtship rituals, the male mates with the females who then go off to search for nesting sites. Once they have found a suitable depression, the hen lays between 10-12 eggs which are incubated for 28 days. Being nidifugous, these young chicks quickly learn how to feed themselves and leave the nest between 12-24 hours later. Wild Turkeys are omnivourous and they feed on shrubs and small trees as well as acorns, nuts, berries, roots and insects. They may also eat snakes, frogs and salamanders.

Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is the national bird of Tobago and Trinidad. This absolutely stunning, brightly colored bird is a remarkable sight to see. Although they only occur naturally in South America, they can be seen in zoos the world over.

Scarlet Ibises vary in length from 56 to 61 cm or 22 to 24 inches, with a mass of about 650g. Both male and female Scarlet Ibises are a bright red color and have black tips on their wings. Immature birds are brown with a white belly and rump. As time progresses they will begin producing scarlet feathers. The feather color of the Scarlet Ibis comes from the synthesis of carotene found in their diet. It has been said that the black pigmentation on the wing’s primary feathers gives it strength. They have very long legs, typical of waders. These help them walk across mud flats, marsh lands and mangrove stands. The long neck also assists them in reaching certain areas. Notable is the Scarlet Ibis’ long curved bill. The bill is highly sensitive and can search out small creatures such as crustaceans, insects, fish and frogs in the mud. Should the ibis or its young be attacked it will fight using its wings, legs and beak.

These spectacularly colored birds live in extensive colonies. Males woo female Scarlet Ibises with complex courtship dances. They will typically pair off for life. Both in the pair will construct a nest in mangrove trees with sticks. After mating the female Scarlet Ibis will lay 2 or three eggs. These are a pale green color with brown streaks. Incubation lasts 23 days and the offspring fledge in 39 to 45 days. By the age of 2 years the young ibises have transformed into their scarlet coloration.

Although the Scarlet Ibis is not a threatened species it is still on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) concern list. These remarkable birds are facing over-hunting, habitat destruction and egg collecting. Scarlet Ibises play an important role in the environment and it is therefore vital that we protect this bird species along with others.

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Scarlet tanager, Piranga olivacea, is unusual in comparison to the other 230 species of the Neotropical Tanager family. The Scarlet Tanager differs in that its plumage changes seasonally, in fact only one other member of the family does this and that is the Tanager that comes from the South American species. Every fall the male bird changes his striking red and black plumage to olive green for a more nondescript look. The small bird is about 6.25 inches long and has a fairly stout bill. The scarlet tanager can mainly be found in treetops.

The adult male tanager is a spectacular looking bird with his vibrant scarlet red plumage set against his shiny black wings and tail. This colouring stays with the male between the spring and summer months.

The adult female has none of the famous red coloring that her counterpart has but has a more yellow plumage. The female has olive back-grey wings and tail with greenish edges at the end of the feathers, and yellow under parts. The juvenile plumage is similar to the female tanager but the males will have blacker tails and wings.

The male scarlet Tanager is very easy to identify because of its striking red coloring. The male summer and Hepatic Tanagers, on the other hand, are entirely red. The female scarlet Tanager is also easily identified as the female summer Tanager is a plain yellow and not just orangey-yellow on its under parts. The female Western Tanager has wing bars and the female Hepatic Tanager has a darker cheek and her under parts are more orangey.

During the winter the Scarlet Tanager will occupy the canopy of the South American tropical forest and then later start their nocturnal migration north with the change of season. First they migrate through Central America and then they head across to the Gulf of Mexico. Upon arrival the male bird will start singing short phrases, alternating between a low and a high pitch, similar to that of the American Robin. He will then move to the lower branches of the trees and start performing his courtship display by drooping his wings slightly away from the body, elongating his neck to show off his scarlet back, as the female takes a look from above. Once the courtship is complete and a mate has been found the male will go further up into the trees and start singing again. The female Scarlet Tanager also sings but has a softer voice then her male companion. Together they will go out and look for food and raise their young.

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