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6 Reasons You Should Be Drinking “Bird-Friendly” Coffee

6 Reasons You Should Be Drinking “Bird-Friendly” Coffee
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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.

Today, coffee growers fall roughly into five shade categories:

  • Rustic (70-100 percent shade) – Coffee grown in the traditional, centuries-old, rustic fashion is cultivated on the forest floor beneath a thick overhead forest canopy.
  • Traditional Polyculture (60-90 percent shade) – Coffee grown under a mix of native and planted trees receives a good amount of shade.
  • Commercial Polyculture (30-60 percent shade) – Forested land is largely cut down to expand the area for coffee planting. The shade that is there comes from timber and fruit trees.
  • Shaded monoculture (10-30 percent shade) – Only a few pruned trees provide a limited amount of shade for coffee crops.
  • Full sun (No shade) – There is no forested canopy and no shade cover at all.

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. Its 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. Its 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.

Bird Friendly Coffee Certification Logo

Look for this logo to identify "Bird Friendly" certified coffee

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Photo Credits: ARALCAL by julian londono via photopin Creative Commons, Thinkstock

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115 comments

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1:35PM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

thanks for sharing :)

3:44AM PDT on May 6, 2014

Thank you

4:11AM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

Thank you

3:43PM PST on Feb 26, 2014

Thanks for the info.

10:43AM PST on Dec 6, 2013

Anais A., you make a good point, but the fact remains that coffee will continue to be grown, because the world is addicted to it, and most coffee-growing countries need the income. At this time, the choice is between destruction of some of the trees and clear-cutting combined with the massive use of poisonous pesticides.
Which would you choose?

10:26AM PST on Dec 6, 2013

"Bird-friendly coffee" is an oxymoron. Native trees still have to be cut down and removed to make way for the coffee plantation. Native trees have multiple benefits over coffee plants, which are essentially just cultivated bushes. Coffee is native to Ethiopia, not South America. Companies are always trying to show how "sustainable" their products are but their only real concern is the bottom line.

7:22AM PST on Nov 21, 2013

Betty K., I expect that Columbian coffee is grown in a number of different ways. I think that the only way you could tell if a particular brand/type is bird-friendly would be to look for the Smithsonian certification sticker or look it up at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/coffee/search.cfm

William K., I'm curious - why don't you drink South American coffee?

10:37PM PST on Nov 20, 2013

How is Colombian coffee grown?

9:46AM PST on Nov 12, 2013

Good to know, sharing!

12:06AM PST on Nov 10, 2013

I just drink one cup of coffee on work mornings only, so I will pay a little more for good quality, fair trade and bird friendly. It seems that when I shop now, I spend most of my time reading labels. It isn't easy finding "bird friendly" now, but hopefully more brands will become bird friendly.

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