Coffee, Birds & How They Matter

Sun-grown coffee (left) is a monoculture of coffee bushes. Shade-grown coffee (right) offers more habitat for forest species. Photos: Chris Foito/Cornell Lab Multimedia; Guillermo Santos).

Sun-grown coffee (left) is a monoculture of coffee bushes. Shade-grown coffee (right) offers more habitat for forest species. Photos: Chris Foito/Cornell Lab Multimedia; Guillermo Santos).

Our lives in the New World Tropics has allowed a frequent convergence between birds and coffee, even in the most simple terms of enjoying birdsong in our garden over the first morning cup. That very garden of our home in Costa Rica sits in what was historically cafetal (a coffee finca), with large trees shading the coffee that still grows along the little stream that runs along the property line. Blue-crowned motmots (the Central American cousin to the Andean Motmot mentioned below, have been frequent residents.

The coffee plantings at our home are insignificant compared to the 100+ acres of Gallon Jug Estate shade-grown coffee at Chan Chich. Of the nearly 350 bird species recorded in the Chan Chich Reserve’s 30,000 acres, a large percentage are migratory, making their home in the coffee as well as the healthy forest habitats that make up the reserve.

Sustainable agriculture is rarely a “get rich quick scheme”, but taken within the context of the “seventh generation stewardship”, the benefits will continue to outweigh the costs.

In Colombia, Shade-Grown Coffee Sustains Songbirds and People Alike

By Gustave Axelson

Early one morning last January, I drank Colombian coffee the Colombian way—tinto, or straight dark.

I sipped my tinto while sitting on a Spanish colonial veranda at Finca Los Arrayanes, a fourth-generation coffee farm and hotel deep in northwestern Colombia’s Antioquia region. The sun had not yet risen above the high ridges of the northern Andes. In the ambient gray predawn light, the whirring nocturnal forest insects were just beginning to quiet down.

My senses of taste and smell were consumed by the coffee, which was strong and bold in a pure way, the flavor flowing directly from the beans, not a burnt layer of roast. But my eyes were trained on a small wooden platform that held a couple of banana halves. The first bird to visit was an Andean Motmot, one of Colombia’s many Alice in Wonderland–type fantastical birds. It sported a green-and-turquoise coat and black eye mask, and it was huge—longer than my forearm, with a long tail with two circles at the end that swung rhythmically from side to side like the pendulum of a clock.

The motmot flew away and I took another sip of coffee to be sure I didn’t dream it. Another bird soon landed on the platform to pick at the bananas. This one was yellow, though Colombians call it tangara roja, because males of this species are completely red. In its breeding range, birders from the Carolinas to Texas know it as the Summer Tanager.

For more than 5 million years, a rainbow of Neotropical migrant birds (tanagers, warblers, and orioles) has been embarking on epic annual migrations from breeding grounds in North America to the New World tropics. In Colombia, these wintering areas are a lot different now than they were just 50 years ago. From the 1970s to the 1990s, more than 60 percent of Colombian coffee lands were cleared of forest as new varieties of sun-grown coffee were planted. During that same period, populations for many Neotropical migrant species plummeted—a drop many scientists say is related to deforestation of the birds’ wintering areas across Central and South America.

And yet, coffee doesn’t require deforestation. When the Dutch introduced coffee to the New World in the 1700s, it was a forest-floor crop grown under an overhead tree canopy. Now some Colombian farmers are going back to the old ways in the belief that trees make for higher-quality coffee. They’re willing to grow coffee in a forest setting, if that’s what the coffee drinker, people like me, is willing to pay for. The American consumer directly affects how coffee is grown in Colombia, because the U.S.A. is Colombia’s biggest coffee customer—importing more than $1 billion in beans every year…

…That’s not to say shade coffee is better habitat than primary forest; rather, it’s a vital addition to what’s left. More than 75 percent of Colombia’s mountain forests are gone. Some species may rely on shade-coffee farms in the absence of forest. Rodewald says that the decline of the global Cerulean Warbler population—down 70 percent since the 1960s—coincides with the massive conversion of coffee fields from shade- to sun-grown cultivation in Colombia.

Among 42 migratory songbird species known to overwinter in coffee plantations, more than half (22) have significantly declining populations. The morning cup of coffee has the power to directly help, or hurt, migratory birds. It’s an old refrain that’s been sung by Scott Weidensaul in his classic book Living on the Wind; by Canadian scientist Bridget Stutchbury in Silence of the Songbirds; and by the late, legendary Russell Greenberg at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, who helped create the Bird-Friendly coffee certification for birder/coffee drinkers who want to support habitat with their cup of joe.

More than 46 million Americans say they watch birds, and 57 percent of Americans drink coffee daily. That means there may be more than 25 million coffee-drinking bird watchers—more than 17 percent of the American coffee market. But Bird-Friendly coffee constitutes less than 0.1 percent of that market. And the market shares for Rainforest Alliance and Organic labels are in the low- to mid-single digits.

Clearly, millions of bird watchers have not heard the message on coffee and migratory birds…or they’re not listening…

Read the entire article here.

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