Know Your Coffee Birds: Red Siskin

by JulieCraves on December 31, 2020

Male Red Siskin. Photo by Linda De Volder under a Creative Commons license.

Here’s a entry in the occasional Know Your Coffee Bird series, which profiles birds that utilize shade coffee farms. This post is about a species people might not immediately connect with coffee. It is a finch, related to more familiar goldfinches (both American and European), and like them primarily eats seeds and favors a variety of open or semi-open habitats. This is in contrast to the insect- and fruit-eating birds inhabiting tropical forests that we tend to associate with coffee farms. Let’s talk about the endangered Red Siskin (Spinus [formerly Carduelis] cucullatus).

The Red Siskin never had a large range, being primarily found along the northern coast of Venezuela, just edging into Colombia. Once common, populations are now critically fragmented across this area and it is estimated that somewhere between 1500 to 7000 birds (at best) remain in the wild; this includes a relatively recent location found in Guyana. Red Siskins are considered so iconic in Venezuela that they are depicted on the country’s currency. Streets, a park, and even the country’s Little League team is named for them (“cardenalito” in Spanish).

Habitat loss has played a role in the decline of the Red Siskin, but unsustainable trapping for the cage bird trade is a major reason for the near-disappearance of this species. Males are prized for their bright coloration (females are duller) and their ability to mate with the common canary, introducing their red coloration to future generations of canaries. Because Red Siskins can be harder to raise in captivity, wild birds are continually captured to maintain the red genes in canaries — which is actually unnecessary from a genetic standpoint. Although trapping in Venezuela has been illegal for decades, the increasing rarity of these birds, the poverty-inducing economic crisis and political upheaval in Venezuela combine to make illegal trade in the birds lucrative for both greedy poachers and desperate citizens.

In 2015, the Red Siskin Initiative was established among many partner organizations to address the precipitous declines. Strategies include research, captive colonies with the aim to breed siskins for reintroduction, reducing overexploitation, and public education. An important component of this initiative is habitat preservation and income security through coffee farming.

Venezuela once had a thriving coffee industry which was eclipsed by the oil economy and grew out of favor due to government price controls that make coffee farming unprofitable and unsustainable. However, Bird-Friendly coffee certification (which requires organic certification) qualifies the coffee as gourmet, exempt from the price controls, and allows it to be sold at a premium. In addition to organic farming methods, Bird-Friendly certification has requirements regarding shade cover and composition, native tree diversity, and other criteria that provide habitat for birds, including Red Siskins. Partners also provide technical assistance and help producers with capacity-building.

In 2019, nearly 40 farms occupying 165 ha, members of the AsociaciÁ³n Civil de Productores Agroforestales—Piedra de Cachimbo y Florida (ACAFLO), obtained organic certification, with 13 also gaining Bird-Friendly certification. The goal is to expand the certified production area to 400 ha by the end of 2021. Venezuela exports little or no coffee these days, and the situation is dire there. I really hope for the success of this project, and look forward to being able to purchase this coffee to support this great conservation initiative. The establishment of Bird-Friendly certified coffee farms will provide a sustainable livelihood for farmers and preserve habitat for Red Siskins and many other bird and wildlife species.

Pair of Red Siskins. From a plate in Bird Notes, scanned by the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

More reading:

Revised on March 4, 2021

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

Previous post:

Next post: