Black-throated Green Warbler: often winters in coffee plantations in Central America
If you read Bird Watcher’s Digest (and you should!), you may have seen my column in the Jan / Feb 2009 issue, talking about coffee. To recount it briefly: as a birder in my early twenties, I spent a lot of time birding in Mexico in winter, and I soon found that coffee plantations were great birding spots. These were farms growing coffee the traditional way, in deep shade. The growers (usually family groups or villages) would clear out the undergrowth in native forest and plant coffee bushes, tending to their crops by hand. My friends and I found that such spots were full of birds, both local tropical species and many migrants from the north. All winter I could enjoy birds from "back home" spending the season in the shade-coffee plantations.
A few years later I made a shocking and depressing discovery: there was a strain of coffee that could be grown in full sun, and it was rapidly replacing traditional shade coffee all over Latin America. The old shaded plantations, with their abundant birdlife, were being replaced by sterile "factory farms" of coffee growing in the glaring sun. Sun-coffee farms supported essentially no birds at all, they were subject to major soil erosion, and they required lots of fertilizers and pesticides to keep them going. And the disappearance of the shade-coffee plantations was a disaster for wintering populations of North American nesting birds.
Baltimore Oriole, male: often common in shade-coffee plantations in winter
Some people have been working on this issue for years. Careful studies in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean have documented the value of shade-coffee plantations for birdlife. And a number of scientists and conservationists have been trying to convince birders to demand shade-grown coffee. There are good reasons for supporting shade coffee; it usually provides better working conditions for the farmers (cooler shade, fewer chemicals), it’s a premium product that tastes better so it should be possible to sell it at a higher price, and of course it protects bird populations.
By now, many birders have at least vaguely heard about the concept. Unfortunately, some companies have jumped on just the edge of the bandwagon -- but only to the extent of marketing, not genuinely working to guarantee the sources of their coffee. So birders may buy a product that claims to be "shade-grown" but really isn’t. There are different levels of shade, after all, and the term may be slapped on any coffee that was grown in the sun with a few trees nearby.
To address this problem, scientist / conservationists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) have developed criteria for certifying truly "Bird-Friendly" coffee. The SMBC standards are quite stringent, and any farm that meets these criteria will support birds, and people, too: these are almost automatically organic and fair-trade farms as well. SMBC certification is the gold standard for genuine shade-grown, Bird-Friendly coffee. But SMBC-certified coffee is still not easy to find, because birders haven’t been demanding it.
Wilson's Warbler: often common in winter in shade-coffee plantations in Mexico
Ultimately the goal is to create more demand for the certified Bird-Friendly coffee so that farmers growing the right thing will be able to maintain these quality shade plantations and will be able to support their families. We in turn will benefit by having populations of migrant birds coming back each spring from these safe wintering havens. I’m no businessperson, but I understand how all these things are connected. If birders in the U.S. and Canada will insist on Bird-Friendly coffee, we can actually shift the market in a way that will protect bird habitat.
Please check out the website for Birds & Beans: https://birdsandbeans.com/index.html Even if you’re not a coffee drinker yourself, think of all your coffee-drinking birding friends who would appreciate such a thoughtful gift, and think of all the birds that would appreciate it also!