Bird-Friendly Coffees Really Are For The Birds

But surprisingly, only half of all birders and other environmentally-conscious people have ever heard of these coffees

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Adult male cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulea). This migratory songbird breeds in eastern North … [+]

A little more than one year ago, a study reported that North America lost 3 billion birds in less than 50 years (more here). One of the foremost reasons for this dramatic decline in birds was habitat destruction due to human activities such as logging, farming and mining. At the same time, even though there are far fewer birds alive today, there are far more people than ever who are watching them, photographing them and feeding them (more here).


“We know bird-watchers benefit from having healthy, diverse populations of birds, and they tend to be conservation-minded folks,” Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, said.

Additionally, birders, like most people, enjoy drinking coffee.

“My colleagues and I wanted to dig into this key audience to determine their interest in Bird-Friendly coffee.”

More than 2.5 million acres of rainforest in Central America alone have been destroyed to grow coffee, which has severely reduced the diversity of birds, animals and plants living in these areas. Further, even when rainforests were not destroyed, millions of acres were degraded by applications of harmful pesticides and fertilizers to increase coffee production that poison the environment.

“Over recent decades, most of the shade coffee in Latin America has been converted to intensively managed row monocultures devoid of trees or other vegetation,” Amanda Rodewald, a co-author of the study who is the Garvin Professor and senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said in a statement. “As a result, many birds cannot find suitable habitats and are left with poor prospects of surviving migration and successfully breeding.”

Today, most coffee sold is sun-grown under little or no shade. This loss of tropical forest biodiversity to a monoculture harms resident rainforest birds along with their migratory cousins so they all are disappearing along with their rainforest homes. This simple connection between habitat loss and pesticide and fertilizer pollution to typical coffee farming methods was the impetus for Smithsonian conservation scientists to create the strictest agricultural certification criteria for coffee: their Bird-Friendly certification requires that coffee is organic and that it meets strict requirements for both mature canopy cover and the type of forest in which the coffee is grown. Bird-Friendly coffees are guaranteed to support bird habitat, in addition to fair and stable prices for coffee producers, healthy environments for local communities, and equal access to markets for Bird-Friendly coffee producers.

Today, more than 37,000 acres of Bird-Friendly coffee farms in 11 countries produce 34 million pounds of coffee.

An adult female blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) perches on a coffee bush in a coffee farm in … [+]

But aren’t all certified organic coffees also shade-grown and Bird-Friendly?

“As I understand it, organic coffee often is grown in some sort of shade but it could be from other crops or non-native trees that aren’t as beneficial to birds,” Professor Dayer explained in email.

“It’s also important to keep in mind that the label ‘shade-grown’ is not regulated or a specific certification,” Professor Dayer added in email. “So that coffee also may not be doing much to benefit birds.”

Coffee pickers walk to work on a coffee farm in Antioquia, Colombia. (Credit: Guillermo Santos / … [+]

“[N]ot only is [Bird-Friendly] coffee grown without pesticides, it also is shade grown under a canopy of trees that provides quality habitat for a variety of birds,” Professor Dayer pointed out in email.

Bird-Friendly coffees are grown in the traditional way; as an understory crop in shade provided by a mix of mature native rainforest tree species, which often include fruiting trees that provide a variety of other crops to coffee farmers. Unlike the shade-grown coffee designation, Bird-Friendly coffee is an actual certification scheme that covers everything from canopy height to insect biodiversity. It ensures that coffee farms provide a combination of foliage cover, tree heights and overall biodiversity that protects high quality habitat for birds and other wildlife (Figure 1).

F I G U R E 1 : The difference between shade-grown and bird-friendly shade-grown coffees. (Credit: … [+]

It stands to reason that birders and other environmentally-conscious people would actively seek out and purchase certified Bird-Friendly coffees, but are they? To better understand birders and their coffee drinking choices, Professor Dayer and her collaborators administered an online survey in 2016 to 912 donors or members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who self-identified as coffee drinkers and as birdwatchers to assess their familiarity with, receptivity to purchase, and perceived constraints on purchasing a variety of certified coffees.

Surprisingly, this survey found that only half (49%) of all serious birders considered bird habitats when purchasing coffee, and even fewer (38%) birders were familiar with Bird-Friendly shade-grown coffee — and only 9% purchased it (ref). Why?

“One of the most significant constraints to purchasing Bird-Friendly coffee among those surveyed was a lack of awareness,” said Alicia Williams, lead author of the study and a former research assistant at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and at Virginia Tech.

“I was surprised to see that only 9 percent of those surveyed purchased Bird-Friendly certified coffee and less than 40 percent were familiar with it,” Ms Williams said.

Typically, bird watchers are very supportive of conservation activities and programs that benefit birds, and they are generally willing to pay for them. But consumers are rarely able to visit coffee farms to see for themselves whether the claims made about farming methods are true. Instead, they must rely on others to certify that farmers are adhering to a particular set of environmental standards.

The study survey also found there is a large amount of public confusion about what various coffee certification schemes are out there and what they actually require (i.e., ref). This confusion mainly stems from deliberately false or misleading corporate advertising and marketing ‘greenwashing’ campaigns designed to make particular coffee brands appear environmentally friendly when, in fact, they are not.

You could think of these greenwashing campaigns as cynical corporate ‘fake news’ campaigns that harm birds in exchange for your money.

Further, this survey also indicated there is confusion about how coffee purchases impact bird habitat, and where to buy certified Bird-Friendly coffees.

“We need to mobilize the estimated 45 million U.S. bird enthusiasts to help limit bird population declines,” Professor Dayer said. “One way to do that is to encourage birdwatchers to seek out and purchase Bird-Friendly coffee, in stores and online.”

Shade-grown Arabica coffee supports greater densities of birds, mammals, plants, trees and insects. … [+]

Increasing public awareness about certified Bird-Friendly coffee and its beneficial impact on bird populations should include more informative advertising, increased availability of Bird-Friendly coffee, and collaborations between conservation organizations and coffee distributors.

Coffee-drinkers’ fondness for coffee flavor and aroma are also important ways to increase public awareness of Bird-Friendly coffees because they are much tastier than sun-grown varieties.

“It was also interesting, though not surprising, that a large number of our respondents reported that the flavor or aroma of coffee was an important consideration in their coffee purchases,” Ms Williams said, adding that this “could be a useful attribute of bird-friendly coffee to stress going forward.”

How can you know that the coffee you are buying is certified Bird-Friendly? Just look for this logo on the container (its design has evolved twice since this certification was introduced in 1997; Figure 2), ask specifically for it at your local coffee house or supermarket, or search for it online.

F I G U R E 2 : The Smithsonian Bird Friendly® certification seal has evolved twice since the … [+]

The average coffee-drinker consumes two cups of coffee per day, which boils down to 700 cups of coffee per year or 7kg of coffee beans — almost the total output of two coffee trees in a single year. If the 45 million American birders who also drink coffee purchase Bird-Friendly coffee, the combined effect in support of birds could be powerful.

Alicia Williams, Ashley A. Dayer, J. Nicolas Hernandez‐Aguilera, Tina B. Phillips, Holly Faulkner‐Grant, Miguel I. Gómez, and Amanda D. Rodewald (2021). Tapping birdwatchers to promote bird‐friendly coffee consumption and conserve birds, People and Nature, published online on 1 March 2021 ahead of print | doi:10.1002/pan3.10191

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