Know your coffee birds: Hispaniola’s Palm-Tanagers

by on August 25, 2011

Black-crowned Palm-Tanager. Photo by Pat Johnson, taken during field work he performed with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. VCE has done incredible work in Hispaniola.

There are two species of palm-tanagers (Phaenicophilus) found on Hispaniola, the island comprised of the Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti.  One is the widespread Black-crowned Palm-Tanager (P. palmarum). The other is the only species of bird unique to Haiti: the Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager (P. poliocephalus). The latter is restricted primarily to the Tiburon Peninsula, the long arm of land in that forms the southeast coastline of the island, where it replaces the Black-crowned. At one time, the peninsula was separated from the rest of the island by the sea, allowing many endemic species to evolve. It is believed this is when the Black-crowned and Gray-crowned Palm-Tanagers diverged into two species. The two species are similar, with the Gray-crowned having (as you may have guessed) a gray rather than black crown, less white on the throat, and some smaller physical features.

Both of these resident species will use many kinds of forest habitats, from humid deciduous to pine, from sea level to upper montane elevations over 2000 meters. They will also use well-vegetated gardens and farms. In many regions, this adaptability would provide the birds with some habitat security. However, deforestation has been so severe on Hispaniola that in many places wooded areas, including agroforests, are so fragmented, degraded, or just plain uncommon that many forest bird species are struggling. The situation is particularly precarious in Haiti, where it is estimated that only 1.5% of the original forested areas survive.

The palm-tanagers forage on insects, often found in dead leaves or under bark, and some fruit. During the non-breeding season, Black-crowned Palm-Tanagers are typically found alone or in pairs, while Gray-crowned Palm-Tanagers are often found in groups of four to six birds.

Portrait of a Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager on a Haitian postage stamp.

Gray-crowned Palm-Tanagers (known locally as “Kat Je Sid” or “Cuatro Ojos”) really deserve special mention. They are locally common on the Tiburon Peninsula, especially in Pic Macaya National Park — little is known about their current status outside this tenuously-protected area. In fact, recent research has not revealed conclusive evidence that they occur east of a line extending south from Port-a-Prince, but historical reports indicate that their range may extend closer to the DR border.

A combination of reforestation and agroforestry crops such as shade coffee would certainly facilitate the conservation of this species. Coffee is produced in the Pic Macaya region. At one point it was roasted and sold by Barrington Coffee Roasting (see our review), Irving Farm Coffee, and Wicked Joe, but I could not find it available at the time of this writing.

However, shade coffee is currently being produced and exported by the Coopérative des Planteurs de Café de l’Arrondissement de Belle-Anse (COOPCAB) based in Thiotte, close to the DR border. This is a group of seven cooperatives representing 5000+ members. It is typica coffee grown at 1300-1350 m in mixed pine forest near Gras Cheval, north of Thiotte, and is usually branded as Blue Forest coffee. It is being most widely promoted and distributed by La Colombe Torrefaction. La Colombe is assisting COOPCAB in getting Rainforest Alliance certification.

The pine forests are critical for endangered Hispaniolan Crossbill, Loxia megaplaga, an island endemic. This bird, once considered a subspecies of the White-winged Crossbill of northern coniferous forests, feeds exclusively on the seeds of Hispaniolan pine (Pinus occidentalis). Forested areas in Haiti and the DR are also essential to North American migrant birds, especially the rare Bicknell’s Thrush. Birds do not represent the only important or unique species that rely on Haiti’s dwindling habitats. The country is host to many other endemic species, including one of the smallest frogs in the world.

The importance of income-producing, habitat-restoring agriculture to Hispaniola’s people, flora, and fauna cannot be underestimated. Given its history and potential, shade coffee is an excellent candidate.

Learn more:

Literature:

McDonald, M. A., and M. H. Smith. 1994.  Behavioral and morphological correlates of heterochrony in Hipaniolan Palm-Tanagers.  Condor 96: 433-446.

Sly, N. D., Townsend,  A. K., Rimmer, C. C., Townsend, J. M., Latta, S., and I. J. Lovette. 2010. Phylogeography and conservation genetics of the Hispaniolan endemic Palm-tanagers (Aves: Phaenicophilus). Conservation Genetics 11: 2121-2129.

Rimmer, C. C., Townsend, J. M., Townsend, A. K., Fernandez, E. M., and J. Alamonte. 2005. Avian diversity, abundance, and conservation status in the Macaya Biosphere Reserve of Haita. Ornithologia Neotropical 16:219-230.

Townsend, J. M. 2009. Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager (Phaenicophilus poliocephalus), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Ed). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=46132

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Know Your Coffee Birds series

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