Birds and Brew: How Coffee Plantations Can Help or Hinder Migratory Birds

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This yellow warbler summers in North America but travels thousands of miles to spend its winters in Central America. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

As we sit and observe warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks as they flit about our yards and visit our feeders each spring, it is hard to comprehend that these small wonders have traveled thousands of miles from the forests of Central or South America to arrive at our doorsteps. We enjoy these colorful birds while they are here, but how often do we stop to think about where they go in the winter, and what they find when they get there?

After oil, coffee is the most valuable legal export in the world and more than half of the world’s coffee is grown on plantations in Central and South America in Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Columbia. Prior to the 1970’s the majority of these plantations produced shade-grown coffee in which coffee was grown under existing forest cover or under trees planted by the farmer. These types of farms were valuable to the avian community in providing cover and natural food sources. In response to concern about a fungus and a desire for higher yields, coffee growers began to develop more sun-tolerant varieties of coffee in the 1970’s and soon full-sun coffee farms had taken the place of most shade-grown farms. Though full-sun coffee farms produce higher yields, they support less than a quarter the number of bird species as shade-grown farms. Additionally, full-sun farms don’t reap the benefits that trees provide to shade-grown farms in soil quality and erosion control and in turn require the use of more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

As full-sun coffee farms take away valuable habitat, eliminate food sources, and introduce harmful chemicals into the environment, birds that live in Central and South America year round or as winter migrants are facing more of a challenge in finding healthy, food-bearing habitat. Consumers have become more aware of the impact of full-sun coffee farms on the avian community, and many are demanding shade-grown, “bird-friendly” coffees and in turn a panoply of certifications and labeling mechanisms have cropped up to inform consumers of what they are buying. Though wading through the labels can be confusing, knowing the meaning of different certifications can help you to make an informed decision when buying coffee.

Products labelled “bird-friendly” by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are subject to the most stringent guidelines. These coffees are organic and meet strict requirements for both the amount of shade and type of forest where the coffee was grown. The environmental certification most often seen on coffee is that of the Rainforest Alliance which also certifies tea, cocoa, and fruit. In order to receive this certification coffee must be produced using alternatives to chemical and pesticide use (though it does not require organic certification), and farms must practice erosion control and limit water use. The Rainforest Alliance does have shade requirements, though not as strict as those required for “bird-friendly” certification. Additionally, coffee blends containing only 30 per cent of beans meeting certification requirements are allowed to carry the label. “Shade-grown” labels are unregulated and appear on many specialty coffees, but carry no guarantee of healthy forest composition or density.

Fortunately there are now several “bird-friendly” coffee options available. To find a distributor near you check out the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly Search at: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/coffee/search.cfm.

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3 thoughts on “Birds and Brew: How Coffee Plantations Can Help or Hinder Migratory Birds

  1. That is very useful information. I never fully understood the benefit of buying shade grown coffee before and will purposefully seek it out even more now. South America has the most biodiversity of any of the continents so it certainly is very important that we do all these little things that add up to significant preservation outcomes there.

  2. Christine,
    The photograph is a lovely introduction to your post. The connection between bird habitat and our daily habit (coffee) is important.

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