The challenges facing bird conservation are daunting—but what we eat and drink can support habitat that is good for birds and for farmers too.
Nearly 30 years ago, scientists at the National Zoo, led by the late Russ Greenberg, began researching the role traditional coffee farms in Latin America play in providing winter habitat for the migratory birds we know and love that arrive here in the United States every spring. The key finding was extraordinary. Traditionally grown, organic shade coffee is nearly as good for birds as virgin forest. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center developed a set of criteria to certify coffee farms as “Bird Friendly.”
This pioneering work has critical meaning today. In the past three decades, industrial sun-grown coffee production has destroyed millions of acres of tropical bird habitat, compounding the massive loss of forest to pasture, logging and chemically dependent monoculture crops.
Traditional shade coffee farms provide a complex, multilayer habitat, which helps account for the density of migrant songbirds that use these plantations during the winter.
The American Bird Conservancy and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are strong backers of the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly (BF) certification program. BF is the gold standard among coffee certifications, proven to preserve the highest level of biodiversity on the farms that meet its rigorous requirements.
In February 2014, a team of six researchers headed to northern Nicaragua to the local coffee cooperative UCA San Juan del Rio Coco. The co-op’s more than 400 small farms produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of Smithsonian-certified coffee every year. Three researchers came from Dr. Bridget Stutchbury’s lab at York University and three from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, which is also a big supporter of Smithsonian-certified coffee. For weeks, the crew rose before daybreak and headed to that day’s slate of farms, scrambling up and down steep hillsides in the early, fog-shrouded light, watching and listening for birds, and meeting with the farmers whose families have been raising coffee in these hills for generations. They were struck by the stark contrast between the immense green oasis that the coffee-farming highlands represent, and the dry, denuded pastureland and sun-grown coffee plantations surrounding it—land that was largely barren of birds.
“Something that I found unforgettable was the difference between the shade coffee region around San Juan del Rio Coco, which, despite being the dry season, was very green, and areas east and west that had been deforested,” said Drew Weber, part of the Hawk Mountain team. “I think it is a pretty telling comparison of how promoting shade-coffee agriculture is the only way to go if we expect forests to remain in the region.”
The six surveyors found plenty of birds—more than 130 species, including neotropical migrants such as broad-winged hawks and merlins, vireos, thrushes, warblers, and flycatchers. Especially common were yellow-bellied flycatchers; Tennessee, chestnut-sided, black-throated green and Wilson’s warblers; summer tanagers and Baltimore orioles. But the team also found rare species of deep conservation concern, such as golden-winged warblers.
But it wasn’t just the birds, as Lee Simpson from Hawk Mountain was reminded repeatedly.
“I was amazed to be in a rural community far from the capital where organic farming practices had been embraced,” she said. “Some of the producers whose farms we surveyed were excited to share with us how they keep the water clean after processing the coffee to remove the husks, or how much safer organic methods are for their families. I began to learn how this co-op had come to embrace organic methods.”
Americans drink over a third of the world’s coffee. If we all buy and drink Bird Friendly certified coffee, songbirds, farmers and future generations of bird lovers will sure that the birds return every year.
About the Author
Bill Willson is co-founder, with Scott Weidensaul, of Birds & Beans®, the only coffee brand in the United States that roasts solely Bird Friendly® certified beans. We roast and sell Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center certified shade grown coffee, as well as fair-trade and USDA Organic certified. Great for birds, people, the Earth. Great tasting coffee too.