Are epiphytes important for birds in coffee plantations? An experimental assessment.
Coffee is produced in tropical regions of the world, largely in Latin America. Coffee cultivation techniques range from traditional systems, where coffee grows under a diverse canopy of shade trees (shade-coffee plantations), to modern systems, where coffee grows without any type of shade (sun-coffee plantations). Shade-coffee plantations provide refuge for forest fauna in otherwise deforested landscapes. The conservation value of these agro-ecosystems depends upon their structural and floristic diversity. The way coffee producers manage the vegetation, including the epiphytic component, may profoundly affect the value of plantations for conserving biological diversity. Shade-coffee certification programmes have emerged to verify that coffee advertised as 'shade grown' is actually grown on highly biodiverse plantations. Although these programmes universally encourage epiphyte protection from pruning (a common practice), there has been no experimental evaluation of the importance of epiphytes in supporting faunal diversity. We report the effect of experimentally removing epiphytes on the bird assemblage in a shade-coffee farm near Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico. We established two matching pairs of epiphyte removal and control plots. We compared bird diversity and abundance, based on daily censuses during the breeding and non-breeding season. We used existing information on the way in which birds use epiphytes as foraging and nesting substrates to explain the presence of different species in plots with epiphytes. Plots without epiphytes tended to be less diverse than plots with epiphytes, but rarefaction analysis and ANOVA showed no significant differences in species richness between treatments in any of the seasons. Mean bird abundance was significantly higher in plots with epiphytes during both seasons, and a multidimensional scaling analysis showed that bird community structure differed between the two treatments. Eighteen forest bird species were significantly more abundant in plots with epiphytes. Three non-forest species were more common in plots without epiphytes. Resident bird species that used epiphytes as a nesting substrate were significantly more abundant in plots with epiphytes. When epiphytes are removed, canopy cover, foraging substrates, nest sites and nest materials are eliminated and microclimatic conditions change. This could increase predation on adult birds and nests, increase intra- and interspecific competition, and decrease individual survivorship. Synthesis and applications. This is the first experimental assessment of the importance of epiphytes for birds. Shade-coffee plantations with epiphytes maintain higher abundance and diversity of the inhabitant bird fauna than plantations without epiphytes. This study reinforces the value of positive epiphyte management as an important factor in shade-grown coffee certification, where the goal is to promote biodiversity conservation.