Imagine you walk into the neighborhood coffee house for your morning cup of joe, and on the counter is a tip jar with a sign reading, “$ for wintering warblers” with a photo of a Chestnut-sided Warbler in a tropical forest.
You’d drop your change in, right? Any proud bird watcher would do their part for the wellbeing of the sprightly warblers that delight us so much come spring.
It’s not such a stretch of the imagination, York University researcher Bridget Stutchbury told a packed audience at the Cornell Lab’s Monday night seminar series last week. Many of the colorful songbirds that are just now leaving us for the winter, including warblers, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks, will spend the next five months in and around shade coffee plantations in Mexico and Central and South America.
But only if the birds can find them. Shade-coffee plantations—particularly ones that grow coffee under a natural forest canopy—are increasingly being deforested, leaving North American migrants with fewer places to spend the winter. The good news, Stutchbury said, is that you can have your dark roast and your songbirds too if you buy sustainable coffee, particularly Bird Friendly coffee.
Stutchbury recapped recent research on Wood Thrushes, sweet-singing birds of Eastern forests whose numbers have dropped by half since the 1960s. Yet, with regenerating forests in the Northeast, Wood Thrushes now have more breeding habitat than they did decades ago. “What does that tell you?” Stutchbury asked her audience. “Must be a problem on their wintering grounds.” (Although some researchers point out that the quality rather than quantity of forest in North America might still be limiting this species.)
And indeed, when Stutchbury tracked individual Wood Thrushes from the U.S. to Nicaragua and back, she found that regional Wood Thrush population declines matched deforestation trends in Nicaragua, where forest cover has dropped 30 percent in just the past two decades.
This deforestation likely affects other wintering songbirds, too, such as Baltimore Orioles and Chestnut-sided and Kentucky warblers, which have also declined in the last half-century, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Can shade-grown coffee help these birds? Most coffee drinkers figure the answer is yes. But as it turns out, the words “shade-grown” on a package of coffee can refer to a range of habitat conditions that offer varying degrees of refuge for migratory songbirds.
Making Sense of Sustainable Coffee Labels
They’re those little rectangular icons lined up on your favorite gourmet coffee bags—a tree, a flower, a frog, a harvester, each trying to tell you something about how the coffee was grown. But what does each one mean, and how do they differ? Here’s a list of common labels and their benefits for birds. For more specifics, see the list of links below.
Bird Friendly. Certified by scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, this coffee is organic and meets strict requirements for both the amount of shade and the type of forest in which the coffee is grown. Bird Friendly coffee farms are unique places where forest canopy and working farm merge into a single habitat. By paying a little extra and insisting on Bird Friendly coffee, you can help farmers hold out against economic pressures and continue preserving these valuable lands. The good news is that there’s more Bird Friendly coffee out there than many people realize—we just need to let retailers know we want it (see below).
Organic. As with other organic crops, certified organic coffee is grown without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and is fairly sustainable—although there are no criteria for shade cover. Because of coffee’s growth requirements, it’s likely that organic coffee has been grown under some kind of shade. However, many farmers shade their coffee using other crops or nonnative, heavily pruned trees that provide substantially less habitat for birds, and the organic label offers no information about this.
Rainforest Alliance. The most popular environmentally friendly certification for coffee as well as tea, cocoa, and fruits, Rainforest Alliance requires alternatives to chemical and pesticide use (though they stop short of organic certification), erosion control, restricted water use, and ecosystem management efforts. Because Rainforest Alliance develops standards for a wide range of farms, their shade-cover requirements are not as demanding as Bird Friendly coffee. Also, Rainforest Alliance allows coffee blends to be sold with the Rainforest Alliance label even if only a percentage of the beans (currently only 30 percent, with plans to scale up to 90 percent) carry the certification. Rainforest Alliance has a laudable goal to make a difference on a fairly large scale (they certified 540 million pounds of coffee in 2011), but there is no guarantee their certified coffee farms meet the wintering needs of migrant songbirds.
Fair Trade. Inspired by humanitarian concerns, Fair Trade labeling helps to ensure that the workers on coffee farms get paid fairly for the work they do. The higher prices that Fair Trade products earn help to provide an alternative to the price leverage that large coffee buyers can wield. However, a Fair Trade label does not automatically indicate that any environmentally friendly practices were followed.
Shade-grown. “Shade-grown” labels often appear on specialty coffees, but unfortunately this designation is not regulated and doesn’t tell you much about the growing conditions at the farm. When the idea for Bird Friendly coffee was hatched by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1996, plans for the certification process faltered while coffee companies quickly adopted the term “shade-grown” as a marketing buzzword. Unfortunately, this type of coffee can be grown among sparse trees on farms that lack diverse forest structure. Some shade-grown coffee is even grown under only the flimsy cover of banana trees fed artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
Sun-grown. Most coffee grown at an industrial scale is grown under full sun. Acres upon acres of coffee bushes planted in hedge-like rows are sustained by fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. If a coffee brand bears no labels at all, it is likely produced with these methods and is unsustainable.
Bird Friendly Farmers Offer Half a Solution—We Can Be the Other Half
Bird Friendly certified coffee can be hard to find on store shelves and in coffee shops. One reason is that the standards for certification are so rigorous that only a small fraction of coffee farms can qualify. The total amount of Bird Friendly coffee certified in the past 12 years amounts to less than 2 percent of the Rainforest Alliance–certified coffee in 2011 alone.
But there’s another, paradoxical reason: coffee sellers don’t always advertise that their coffee is Bird Friendly. “Probably about only 10 percent of coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms carries the Bird Friendly stamp on the package,” said Robert Rice, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
For example, Starbucks and Whole Foods sell some coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms. But they don’t see the need to make room on their packaging for a separate label that appeals to a relatively small—and silent—minority: birders. And without the consumer demand and higher prices for Bird Friendly coffee, past history in Central America suggests that the market pushes coffee farmers toward partial-shade and sun-grown practices.
That’s understandable, said Stutchbury. “We can’t demand that they don’t cut down their forests, and give up money, unless we’re willing to give them something as compensation,” she said. That’s the central idea behind Bird Friendly certified coffee: paying a price premium to growers on rustic coffee plantations so that they can continue to provide prime bird habitat.
The good news is, birders can make a difference—by asking retailers to stock Bird Friendly coffee, and by buying it. Think of it as a tip jar next to your coffee maker. More than 46 million Americans say they watch birds, and half of all Americans drink coffee. “If every birder in the U.S. committed to drinking Bird Friendly coffee, the market would grow 1,000-fold,” said Bill Wilson, owner of Massachusetts-based Birds & Beans, an online coffee retailer that specializes in selling only Bird-Friendly coffee.
Stutchbury closed her talk on Monday by saying it’s time for birders to assert themselves in the coffee marketplace. “Buying Bird Friendly coffee is one of the best ways you can do your part to preserve wintering habitat for our migratory songbirds,” she said.
Where to Buy Bird Friendly Coffee
Grab a supply of Bird Friendly coffee with the help of these Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center pages:
- Find a store near you UPDATE June 2013: The widespread supermarket chain Whole Foods has begun carrying a Bird Friendly-labeled coffee, Allegro Coffee Early Bird Blend.
- See a map of stores that carry Bird Friendly coffee
- Order Bird Friendly coffee online
More Resources on Coffee and Bird Habitat
- For much more detail about coffee labels and their meaning visit the Coffee and Conservation blog, operated by University of Michigan biologist Julie Craves.
- Not all coffee retailers advertise that their coffee is Bird Friendly. If you’re unsure whether your favorite coffee source is Bird Friendly, you can check this list of certified Bird Friendly farms organized by country.
- The Committee for Environmental Cooperation is a joint effort by the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. They provide background on sustainable coffee and a wealth of information and research.
- Read more about Bird Friendly coffee farms in Nicaragua in our Living Bird magazine.
(This article was written by Cornell Lab science editor Gustave Axelson. Image: Hugh Powell.)