Coffee Can Brew Trouble for Birds
A Centuries-old Tradition
Coffee comes from the roasted and ground-up beans of coffee plants. Traditionally, coffee has been grown under a canopy of shade trees. Such "shade" coffee plantations, which are often on small family farms, provide a rich habitat for migratory birds. These small farms also cultivate diverse crops under the forest canopy. Growing fruit, avocados, cacao for chocolate, and trees for firewood provides a diversified living for small family farmers. The tree canopy in shade coffee plantations protects the soil from erosion and provides natural mulch for coffee plants, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The diverse natural environment provides the right nutrients and natural pest controls. No wonder shade-grown coffee farms also provide habitat for over 150 species of North American Songbirds. Many other species of native birds, animals, and plants thrive there, too. Now shade coffee plantations are a threatened habitat.
Until the 1970s, nearly all commercial coffee production was managed under a canopy of shade trees. Encouraged by funds from U.S. aid and local governments, farmers began growing types of coffee plants that thrive in the sun. Then a big rise in the price of coffee made farmers want to raise even more coffee. Since more sun bushes can be cultivated per acre, and each plant produces as much as three times more coffee than a shade bush, the switch from shade to sun coffee seemed sensible. Debt-strapped nations "modernized" coffee growing in hopes of boosting exports. "Sun coffee" varieties started replacing traditional shade coffee plantations. The "shade" versus "sun" controversy began.
Sun or Shade: What's the Difference?
No Shade = No Birds
Coffee farmers have converted from shade to "sun" grown coffee, cutting down trees to grow coffee in sunny, open fields. Most often, sun-grown coffee comes from large industrial plantations. Walking in a sun-coffee field is similar to walking in an apple orchard, where one species of plant dominates the landscape. There is no tree cover at all. Coffee bushes grow directly under the sun.
The destruction of forests throughout the tropics has been devastating to migratory bird populations as well as resident species. In the mid-elevations of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Colombia, most of the forests still standing are in traditional coffee plantations. These provide the last refuge for birds that have lost their habitat to the vast destruction of tropical forests.
Once people hear about shade coffee, many want to buy it. Do coffee drinkers in your family know about shade coffee? Is shade coffee available in your community?
1. Use your Buying Power to Protect Birds.
Your family can use buying power to protect the migratory songbirds that we love. Educated consumer dollars pack a big wallop. Tell the coffee buyers in your family to ask for "shade-grown" or "Songbird-Safe" coffee at their favorite coffee shops. Even if the shops don't have it, they'll pay attention if they get enough requests. Some shade-grown brands are listed here:
By purchasing coffee that is grown in the shade, consumers help keep shade coffee economically viable while preserving increasingly scarce habitat for migratory Neotropical birds. Would you like to conduct a shade coffee campaign in your community? The Seattle Audubon Society has a web page with helpful tips:
A Toast to Shade Coffee