Research: Woodpeckers and ants in India’s shade coffee

by JulieCraves on August 26, 2008

Vishnudas, C. K. 2008. Crematogaster ants in shaded coffee plantations: a critical food source for Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus and other forest birds. Indian Birds 4:9-11.

Rufous Woodpeckers are ant specialists.

The Rufous Woodpecker is one of the twelve woodpecker species found in the Western Ghats of India; it is widespread throughout Asia. Rufous Woodpeckers have a particularly interesting life history, as they are ant specialists. They not only feed largely on ants, but they excavate their nests in large paper-wasp-like nests of the stinging tree ants in the genus Crematogaster.

These ants are common in shade coffee plantations in India, and the author reports that 31 of the 37 ant nests he observed being raided by Rufous Woodpeckers over the previous ten years were on shade coffee farms; only six were in natural forest. Other bird species also take advantage of the woodpeckers ripping open the ant nests. Secondary feeding on the ant eggs and pupae by Greater Racked-tailed Drongos, Oriental Magpie-Robins, and Common Tailorbirds and other bird species are described.

The ants, however, are not welcome on the coffee farms. They protect and support mealy bugs, which are pests on the coffee. Although the woodpeckers and other birds can help control the ants (as do other natural predators), many Indian farmers have traditionally used copious pesticides to control the ants. The author notes that the increasing popularity of organic coffee is reducing this practice, and concludes, “It is high time that the conservation value of shaded coffee plantation, as a critical habitat for Rufous Woodpecker and other forest birds, be recognised and proper agro-ecological management practices developed and popularised amongst planters.”

Photo by Lip Kee.

Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity

wren September 5, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Hope you don't mind, but I included this post in I and the Bird #83.

BirdBarista (Julie) September 6, 2008 at 9:19 am

Thanks, Wren! I get caught up with things and always intend to at least submit one bird-related post… It's great to spread the word.

Amber Coakley September 7, 2008 at 10:37 pm

Really great information to have. BTW, your blog has been extremely helpful in learning more about the interaction between coffee farms and birds. Because of the things I have learned here, I have changed roasters – and feel very good about it. Thanks!!

BirdBarista (Julie) September 8, 2008 at 5:33 am

Thanks so much, Amber! Any time you have a suggestion for a topic you'd like to see covered, just drop me a line. Spread the word to other birders. We're the group that can make the difference.

Amber Coakley September 10, 2008 at 8:44 pm

will do!

Dean Chalk September 30, 2008 at 4:29 am

What a great article, I had no idea about some of these issues that coffee farmers face.

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