The birds we love are in trouble, and they need our help. Many are declining, some of them sharply: Following the 2014 State of the Birds report, about a third of the United States’ 800 or so birds—233 species—were placed on a watch list, indicating an urgent need for protection. Some, like the Whopping Crane, Piping Plover, Spotted Owl, California Condor, and Golden-cheeked Warbler, are already threatened or endangered; the rest are riding the edge. A separate list tallies another 33 common birds around the country that are also in steep decline, having lost at least half their habitat in the last 50 years. They range across a variety of habitats, from grasslands and fields to shorelines and forests, and include birds familiar to most of us—Chimney Swift, Common Grackle, Herring Gull, Eastern Meadowlark, and Snowy Owl among them. The threats they face are as varied as the birds threatened by them. You’ve heard the litany, I’m sure: habitat loss, restricted range, water and air pollution, introduction of invasive species, human recreation in nesting areas, loss of food sources, energy development, climate change… it’s a long and overwhelming list. What’s a concerned birder to do? Where do you even begin?
You can start by settling down with a good cup of coffee. That’s right: coffee. You know, the stuff that gets you moving early enough to catch a spring morning’s first light, snaps you awake after a long night of owling, or cuts the chill of the winter coast. Yes, we birders have occasion to drink a lot of coffee—and while we have different preferences for its consumption (I’ll take mine in a mug of cocoa, thank you), we share a host of reasons to reach for our favorite caffeinated decoction. But the best reason of all is one that many people don’t associate with coffee, and it’s a concern that has only recently been possible to address in this context: Saving birds.
Thanks to increased environmental awareness and sincere concern for the health of the land and the wildlife and people that depend on it, coffee has become a medium for both social and economic justice and environmental stewardship—addressing a host of issues like fair trade, habitat protection, the health of coffee growers and workers, soil and water quality, sustainability, preservation of native flora and fauna, economic equality and opportunity… and, by the way, the quality of the coffee itself. To understand why this is possible (and how a better cup of coffee can actually save the birds we cherish), we have to delve a little bit into the history of coffee.
Coffee originated in the forests of Ethiopia, and made it to our shores in the holds of European ships bound for the New World. Europeans grew the plants in wide-open, sunny plantations, but native Mesoamericans (the Maya, for example), discovered that coffee thrived under the same conditions as did the cacao they’d historically grown—namely, in the shade of native trees. At its most basic, this meant planting coffee shrubs under the existing canopy or, at most, replacing a small number of trees with species that produced other products like fruit and timber. For hundreds of years, this type of shade-grown coffee was the rule, and it’s incredibly compatible with wildlife.
In 1970, though, everything changed. That year, Brazilian coffee farmers discovered coffee leaf rust—a fungal blight that thrives in shade. It had already ravaged Asian coffee farms, so panicked farmers, fearing for their livelihoods, clear-cut plantations and began growing coffee in full sunlight, packed together in neat rows. Not only did this remove critical habitat for a variety of wildlife (including both resident and migratory birds), it also required the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers, which contaminated both soil and water, and exposed workers to a cocktail of toxins. This unfortunate legacy carries on today, with devastating consequences. Growing coffee in full sun wreaks havoc with every link in the ecosystem. Awash in toxic chemicals and devoid of virtually all plant and animal life, modern sun coffee plantations are essentially biological wastelands.
Not so with traditional shade-grown coffee farms. Like desert oases, such plantations are ablaze with life, containing within them a biological richness and diversity second only to undisturbed forest. At a time when more and more rainforest is razed to the ground, these outposts are proving critical to the survival of the region’s wild creatures. And among them are many of the migratory birds whose regular visits delight and inspire us: orioles and tanagers, warblers and vireos, and all those others without which our northern spring would be colorless and silent. All told, 42 species of the songbirds we know and love overwinter in heavily shaded coffee plantations—22 of which are declining significantly.
So, coffee can make a difference—but it has to be the right kind of coffee. The increased desire among coffee drinkers for a more sustainable cup has led to a dizzying array of labels all claiming different things: organic, fair trade, shade-grown, Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly, UTZ… identifying peeps or fall warblers is easier than deciphering this plethora of certifications, and I won’t attempt to unravel it all here (that’s what the links are for). For bird lovers, though, the choice is relatively simple.
First, not all shade-grown coffee is created equal. In many cases, “shade-grown” is a feel-good buzzword. Yes, the beans are grown in the shade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean native forest canopy. Often, coffee shrubs are planted in the shade of non-native species, or in a habitat that’s only minimally diverse—neither of which does much for wintering birds. If you’re concerned about helping to preserve migratory bird habitat, the Bird Friendly certification is your best friend. Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the Bird Friendly certification is the only surefire way to know that the coffee you’re purchasing is, in fact, grown in a way that’s truly bird-friendly. It’s the strongest of certifications, the platinum standard. Bird Friendly coffee meets USDA organic and fair-trade standards, and is grown in the shade of the native forest canopy, under a diverse mix of trees and foliage. Not only does this protect critical migratory bird habitat, it results in a better tasting coffee, as beans grown under such shady conditions take longer to mature and develop more complex flavors. In addition, it preserves the health of the ecosystem and the coffee plantation’s workers, as they’re not exposed to the dangerous mix of chemicals commonly used by non-organic coffee growers. Says Bridget Stutchbury, veteran migratory bird researcher at Toronto’s York University,
“Buying Bird-Friendly coffee is one of the best ways you can do your part to preserve wintering habitat for our migratory songbirds.”
The problem is that Bird Friendly coffee can be hard to find in brick-and-mortar stores (though it’s relatively easy to order online). Compounding the issue, only about 10 percent of bird-friendly beans carry the Bird Friendly label. Bird Friendly is not as well-known a designation as some of the others, and many Bird Friendly certified retailers opt for more recognizable, yet less stringent, labels. Some growers also forego certification altogether, though they may grow their coffee in identical conditions to a certified plantation. Often, small retailers or boutique coffeehouses develop personal relationships with growers, and work very hard to ensure the coffee they buy is grown sustainably, with minimal impact to the environment—again, Bird Friendly in everything but name. Some retailers also include a few Bird Friendly coffees alongside other, non-certified coffees—requiring the buyer to carefully review all the available offerings. At this point, the only 100 percent Bird Friendly brand is Birds & Beans, though several other retailers have one or two in their line—and more, it seems, are coming.
But how much difference can changing your coffee really make? Consider this: in the United States alone, there are more than 46 million birders. That’s 46 million of us who exist, in part, to get out and spend time with birds—often with the assistance of a little caffeine. If every one of us committed to drinking certified Bird Friendly coffee, we could change the dynamic overnight. And if you think our voices aren’t loud enough, or don’t carry enough weight, ask the people of Cape May, NJ. The first birders to venture there made a point of letting every business, restaurant, hotel, coffee shop, gas station—in short, every place they spent money (and birders spend a lot of money)—know that they were there for the birds, and would return every year the birds came back. That city exists because of us. We changed Cape May’s economic equation—and by doing so, ensured the protection of a critical migratory flyway. There are other stories: Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, the Great Florida Birding Trail, and countless locations throughout Central and South America. These places all learned that birders will visit them—and spend money in their communities—as long as there are birds to see. Compared to that, changing the coffee business should be easy.
The drive for sustainability is already underway: that Bird Friendly coffee even exists is proof of that. But it’s happening on a grander scale as well. Just this year, Starbucks reached a significant milestone: 99 percent of its coffee is now sourced through the Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices program. Developed in partnership with Conservation International and verified by SCS Global Services (a neutral, independent third party), CAFE Practices is a set of sustainability standards that covers four main areas: quality, economic accountability, social responsibility, and environmental leadership. The goal? Ensure that farmers and workers are fairly compensated and have safe, fair, and humane working and living conditions; and ensure that growers practice measures to manage waste, protect water quality, conserve resources, reduce chemicals, and preserve biodiversity. Call me crazy, but the largest coffee retailer in the world driving towards 100 percent sustainability seems like a pretty big deal. A few million birders making some noise might just push them to adopt the Bird Friendly standard.
Who knows where this will all lead. The signs, to me, are positive and encouraging. This is easy, something we can all do. It’s an empowering first step, and clear evidence that in a world of seemingly insurmountable problems, each of us can make a difference. For me, amidst all the darkness and news of destruction, it’s no small thing to see hope in a cup of coffee.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, All About Birds, has a great explanation of the various types of coffee certification here.
You can also read about how bird-friendly coffee supports winter habitat at All About Birds here…
… and about Allegro’s entre into the world of Bird Friendly coffee here.
Coffee & Conservation also has an excellent analysis here….
… and a map of recommended roasters here.
Fresh Cup Magazine has an article about the most bird-friendly coffee here…
… and another article about the different certifications for coffee here.
EthicalCoffee.net has a good discussion about Bird Friendly coffee here.
The Rainforest Alliance has a description of its environmental standards (set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network) here.
And you can learn about the Sustainable Agriculture Network here.
You can get more information about Starbucks’ CAFE Practices at Coffee & Conservation…
… and at Starbucks’ own site here.
There’s also info about the CAFE Practices program at Conservation International’s blog here.
And the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has a lot of great resources related to Bird Friendly coffee here.