Coffee, Conservation and Urban Birds: Meet Julie Craves

Julie Craves among the coffee plants in Nicaragua at El Jaguar, a farm/bird reserve. Photo: Darrin O'Brien

Julie Craves among the coffee plants in Nicaragua at El Jaguar, a farm/bird reserve. Photo: Darrin O’Brien

By Howard Meyerson

DEARBORN – Julie Craves is picky about her coffee, about its taste and where it’s grown. Given a choice, she’ll take light roast over dark, but only one choice exists when it comes to sun-grown or shade.

Shade-grown coffee is better for birds, biodiversity and the environment, said Craves. She is not one to mince words.

“Folgers is one of the worst coffees you can buy,” proclaims Craves in typical no-nonsense style. “They are owned by Smuckers, one of the top three leading coffee buyers in the world and they buy virtually no certified coffee.”

Certified as “bird-friendly,” that is. That’s what Craves recommends. She is the director of the Rouge River Bird Observatory (RRBO) on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus here and the author of Coffee and Conservation, an online blog at, about coffee growing and harvesting practices and their effect on the environment.

If Craves isn’t blogging about the caffeine-industrial complex, she may be studying dragon flies, another serious interest. But most likely she will be immersed in the study of urban birds, the resident or migratory species visiting the 290-acre natural area on campus located in the heart of a developed metropolitan area.

Urban Area Birds 

Craves’ research into migratory birds and how they use urban areas has shown that natural habitats like this one on the Rouge River can hold and feed a significant number of bird species.

“My hope has been to inspire people to look at urban areas a different way. It’s not a wasteland, nor is it worthless to wildlife and birds. That we were able to find 140 (bird) species in little postage stamp backyards in Dearborn was astonishing to people,” said Craves, a Detroit native who lives outside of Ann Arbor with her husband Darrin O’Brien, an engineer, who shares her love of coffee, dragonflies and birds.

Craves’ unique scientific work combined with her dedication to educating city students about bird ecology,  and publishing related technical papers, has earned her the respect of scientists all over the state

RRBO was founded by Craves in 1992. It is the research arm of the Environmental Interpretative Center where it is housed on campus, just down the road from Fairlane, the historic home of Henry Ford. Craves is RRBO’s only paid staff, though she recruits volunteers for research projects, and finds grants and other funds keep the observatory going.

“Her work is very important and, as far as I know, it is the only long-term study that has looked at these stop-over urban habitats,” said Kimberly Hall, a personal friend and the Great Lakes Climate Change Ecologist for the Nature Conservancy Michigan Chapter. Hall came to know Craves while working on her Ph.D. in bird ecology. She arrived at RRBO as a volunteer bird-bander while starting research for her degree.

“It is pretty amazing to see her ability to keep the work she is doing supported. She has really had to work hard to maintain it. That’s a testament to her commitment to understanding bird habitat in urban areas.”

Dick Wolinski, a wildlife ecologist with the Michigan Department of Transportation echoes the same. He is the go-between from MDOT that works with natural resource agencies and non-governmental organizations on issues pertaining principally to threatened and endangered species.

“She’s made lemonade out of lemons,” said Wolinski who worked with Craves on projects like the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas and Michigan Birds and Natural History, the ornithological journal published by Michigan Audubon Society. “She has done some wonderful work under particularly trying circumstances. And it is work that no one else does.”

The influence of parents 

Craves’ bird interest blossomed as a young, city girl. Her parents were fond of backyard bird feeding and her mother regularly took her on nature walks.

“My mom glommed on to me. She’d inherited her love of birds from her father who’d grown up in Ontario,” Craves said. “There were still fields and wood lots that we could fart around in. I spent a lot of time doing that as a child.”

Craves graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1992 with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies.  She entered school thinking to be a journalist, but found too many J-School alumni were “flipping burgers,” for a living.  Craves maintains her journalistic interests today by blogging about coffee and writing for BirdWatching, formerly Birder’s World Magazine,  where she is a contributing editor.

RRBO grew out of Craves’ senior-year bird banding internship at UM-D where she developed a powerful interest in urban birds. Her advisor, Dr. Orin Gelderloos, the former director for the EIC, hired her to continue the research that she had started. That also led eventually to conducting bird surveys for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

“I came to realize there is a tremendous abundance of migratory birds here,” Craves said. “It was something no one was doing; the impact of stop-over locations on birds was an idea still in its infancy.”

Unafraid to speak out

Craves considers herself a “contrarian,” one unafraid to challenge popular wisdom. She is known to be outspoken on issues, but people who know her say her work is always grounded in good science. She questions, for instance, whether Michigan’s endangered Kirtland’s Warbler might be able to adapt without human assistance and whether certain non-native plants found on the campus natural area might be valuable to birds, despite the popular credo that non-native plants are bad.

The “anti-science” attitude that has permeated politics and public discourse in recent years sets Craves’ teeth on edge. The public needs more ecological literacy, not less, she says. But Craves is not beyond laughing at herself or telling a racy joke.

“That’s why we love her,” says Hall. “She will engage on issues where other scientists are afraid because they are controversial, but she has a great sense of humor. She can tell a joke that gets everyone pretty red-faced and then go talk to second graders completely appropriately and get them totally engaged.”


This appears in  Michigan Audubon Society’s May/June  issue of the Jackpine Warbler

© 2013 Howard Meyerson

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s