The Coffee–Songbird Connection

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At least 42 species winter on coffee farms, but only those with plenty of trees—another reason to love shade-grown java–a report by Amanda Rodewald for Scientific American.

You know that your morning cup of coffee helps you lift off for work each day, but did you know that it has the potential to do the same for birds? This spring millions of songbirds are once again migrating thousands of miles from their wintering areas in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America to breeding areas in North America. At least 42 species of these birds—warblers, tanagers, orioles among them—lift off from coffee farms.

Perhaps also like you, these migrants are coffee connoisseurs, but of a different sort. They only like farms where coffee is grown under tall trees, what is referred to in the industry as “shade-grown coffee.” Trees provide critical habitat to birds and other species, including frogs, butterflies, orchids, and mammals. Many studies confirm that migratory birds can thrive on the shade-coffee farms where they spend roughly half of each year. Though diminutive in size, many of these birds have an impressive ability to remember where the best farms are and return year after year. In research we conducted, for example, my students and I found one cerulean warbler returned to the same farm for five years.

What draws birds back are the benefits of shade-grown coffee—food, water, and cover for safety and warmth—which help them to survive and gain weight over the winter. That extra weight is needed to fuel their arduous migration. The better a bird’s condition when it departs the wintering grounds, the more likely it is to survive migration, secure a territory for nesting and raise offspring. Survival and reproduction are key to the persistence of any population, and especially critical for the half of migratory species that are declining. Loss and degradation of wintering habitats are important contributors to population declines. So supporting shade-grown coffee also supports the conservation of migratory birds.

And there’s more. Those same shade trees provide numerous other benefits to the environment, called “ecosystem services.” These services range from storing carbon and protecting water quality to providing food to families and reducing the risk of soil erosion and landslides. Shade-grown coffee also requires fewer chemical applications, like fertilizers and pesticides, because trees can provide nutrients and birds can control the numbers of insect pests.

That means lower exposure to chemicals on the farm, in water supplies, and in coffee cups. Plus coffee grown under shade tends to be of better quality and taste, thereby fetching a higher price in the market for farmers already struggling with poverty and making a better tasting cup for consumers. In these ways, shade coffee can be a win–win–win for conservation, communities and consumers.

Yet despite all these positives, most traditional shade coffee farms in Latin America have been converted to low or no-shade systems (called “sun coffee”) over recent decades. Sun coffee farms are reminiscent of an Iowa cornfield—intensively managed row monocultures devoid of trees or other vegetation. Sadly, the scale of conversion has been staggering. Nearly half of all shade coffee farms in Latin America have been turned over to sun coffee.

With many natural forests destroyed long ago, migratory birds have been relying upon shade coffee farms as habitat surrogates in many regions. As shade coffee farms become increasingly difficult to find, many birds will be forced to forgo good habitat, leaving them with poor prospects of surviving migration and successfully breeding.

But as a coffee drinker, you can put your cup of coffee to work for conservation and purchase shade-grown coffee. A growing number of brands offer shade coffee, with the most rigorous environmental standards associated with Smithsonian’s certified Bird Friendly Coffee and, to a lesser extent, Rainforest Alliance.

Choosing shade-grown coffee sends a powerful signal to the coffee industry that sustainability matters. Purchasing shade-grown coffee also creates an economic incentive to use practices that protect the environment and coffee-growing communities. So as the weather warms and you wake to the morning symphony of returning songbirds, you can happily drink your cup of shade-grown coffee knowing that you played a role in helping those birds come home.

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