Shade coffee and birds

[Update: read The True Cost of Coffee, an article in Jan/Feb 2013 issue of BirdWatching Magazine by RRBO’s Julie Craves or view her February 2014 interview on The Green Room television program]

We tend to think of human-altered landscapes, particularly agricultural ones, as bad news for birds. But traditionally-grown coffee plantations in Latin America offer refuge for over 150 species of birds, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Only undisturbed forests harbor more species.

This is because traditionally-grown coffee provides diverse habitat that counters what we usually think of when we think of agriculture. In traditional coffee plantations, coffee bushes are grown in the shade, under a forest canopy. Up to 60 tree species are used to provide shade for the coffee; these species provide nitrogen or supply fruit or wood for the growers. For the coffee, the overstory protects the bushes from the weather, and provides organic mulch that cuts down weed species and maintains the quality of the soil.

Unfortunately, over the last two decades as demand for coffee has increased and the price decreased, farmers have been converting to “sun coffee.” Lower quality types of coffee have been developed which are grown in full sun.  They produce higher yields, but require heavy use of herbicides, pesticides, and artificial fertilizers. The elimination of the forest canopy and undertstory creates a stark coffee monoculture which is poor habitat to birds and other wildlife. The coffee trees themselves also need to be replaced more often than bushes grown in the shade, as weather and erosion take their toll.

Over 7 million acres of land are used for coffee growing in northern Latin America, where most of our migratory birds spend the winter. Increasing percentages of this acreage is being coverted to sun coffee: from roughly 20% in Mexico, 40% in Costa Rica, to 70% in Colombia.

This loss of shade coffee forest has a big impact on bird populations, with 94 to 97% fewer bird species in sun coffee plantations versus shade coffee areas. This includes not only native species, but large numbers of seasonal visitors that breed in North America and winter in the tropics.

Because much of the winter season is dry in the tropics, shade coffee plantations offer a moist sanctuary with a high diversity of insect and nectar resources. Sun coffee plantations host fewer canopy lovers like the Tennessee and Black-throated Green Warblers, moist understory species such as the Ovenbird and Wood Thrush, and scrub-shrub birds like the Gray Catbird and Yellow-breasted Chat.

With nearly half of the cropland in Latin America devoted to coffee, the preservation and encouragement of shade-grown coffee offers an important conservation opportunity. Consumers in the United States purchase about one-third of the world’s coffee, the third most common import. Therefore, American consumers can use their purchasing power to influence coffee management techniques and help preserve critical bird habitat.

You can make a difference. Americans drink one-third of the world’s coffee, and it is the second largest U.S. import after oil.If you are buying inexpensive, grocery-store coffee you are contributing to the destruction of bird habitat and the decline of migratory songbirds.

The RRBO connection

The Rouge River Bird Observatory’s Julie Craves is passionate about birds, biodiversity, AND coffee. In fact, she feels so strongly about the importance of shade-grown coffee to birds that she maintains an entire web site devoted to the coffee and biodiversity connection called Coffee & Conservation.

Julie has consulted with numerous coffee roasters on issues surrounding biodiversity and sustainability on the coffee farms where they purchase their coffee. She has traveled to coffee-growing areas and farms in Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua — you can read about her work banding birds and working with students from North Carolina on a coffee farm in Nicaragua at the RRBO blog Net Results (background and North American birds banded) and Coffee & Conservation (more farm photos, and resident birds banded).

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Because there is no legal definition of the term “shade-grown,” it is used without verification by some coffee roasters. The most straightforward way to make sure you are buying coffee grown organically and using criteria designed to help birds and wildlife by ecologists is to look for Smithsonian “Bird-Friendly” certified coffee.  It must bear this seal to be genuine!

A great source, supported by many conservation organizations, is Birds & Beans. The feature Bird-Friendly coffee, have automatic shipment options, and support bird conservation efforts. You can find another list of providers of Bird-Friendly coffee here.

[RRBO has no financial interest or consideration in these companies or organizations.]

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