Environmentally conscious coffee drinkers already know that the brew they choose matters. They comb supermarket shelves looking for labels like “USDA Organic,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified” and “Fair Trade Certified.”
Did you know, however, that there’s one more label you might want to be sure your morning cup of joe carries? Check to see whether your coffee is certified as a “Bird-Friendly” brand.
Many of the birds you know and love spend their winters in Central and South America, where most of our coffee originates. Over 40 species of migratory songbirds seek out the heavy canopy shade of these coffee plantations as their winter havens.
Migratory birds that thrive in forested habitat include hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, redstarts, hawks, warblers, vireos and many more.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), affiliated with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., developed the “Bird-Friendly” certification in 1997. Using science-based criteria, the developers relied on ornithological research done in Latin America to determine what tropical agricultural setting would support birds while allowing sustainably grown coffee crops.
Why make the special effort to find and buy bird-friendly coffee? Here are six good reasons:
1. It Saves Forests, Which Saves Birds
“Bird-friendly” coffee is first and foremost shade-grown. Almost all coffee was grown this way until about 1972, when scientists developed a hybrid coffee plant that could grow in full-sun conditions, yielding significantly more beans.
There are approximately 6 million acres of coffee-producing farmland worldwide. Since 1972, about 60 percent of that land has been deforested to make room for the hybrid, full-sun variety of coffee plant.
Rustic or traditionally managed coffee plantations offer the greatest amount of desirable habitat for 150 species of birds, according to SMBC biologists. The same is true of cacao (chocolate) plantations. No other agricultural land type offers better habitat for migratory birds. In fact, the only habitat that’s better suited for birds than traditionally managed coffee and cacao plantations is the pristine tropical forest.
Clear-cutting these forests to increase coffee bean yield upsets the ecosystem, creating a critical survival problem for millions of birds and other animals that depend on these forested areas.
2. It‘s Environmentally Friendly in Other Ways, Too
Shade-grown coffee needs no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The birds take care of weeding out problematic bugs like the dreaded coffee borer beetle. Fertilization isn’t necessary because leaf debris and organic matter that fall from the tree canopy to the ground enrich the soil, providing a natural source of nutrients for the coffee plants.
Compare this to how a full-sun coffee plantation must operate: Without trees, it has no birds to act as natural predators for insects. It must instead rely heavily on pesticides to keep the insect population in check. It also needs to use a great deal of herbicides, since weeds are much more difficult to deal with when there’s no shade to kill them off naturally.
In addition, when it rains all these chemicals turn into agricultural runoff, contaminating rivers and streams. Lack of trees also causes significant erosion in these areas.
3. It‘s Officially Certified and Organic
Qualifying for the official “Bird-Friendly” certification label is no small task. To win this most difficult of all coffee certifications, a farm must have a minimum 40 percent shade cover, at least 11 species of shade trees and a canopy at least 12 meters high. The coffee must, of course, also be certified organic.
There are, in addition, criteria for structural diversity, floristic diversity, woody species (trees and shrubs) and vegetative buffers along waterways.
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