Pacific Birds Communications and Outreach Specialist Lynn Fuller submitted this post from her home in Alaska, while eagerly waiting for spring migration. Meredith Walker and Steve Albert at the Institute for Bird Populations, and biologist Sergio Gómez Villaverde, made significant contributions to the post–thank you!
Birds and coffee converge
Over the past year, two parts of my life converged: my addiction to coffee and my birding hobby. Spurred on by the outreach associated with the 2019 study about bird losses, I finally made the choice to fuel my coffee addiction with only bird friendly, shade-grown coffee.
It is one of the 7 Simple Actions to Help Birds and, for me, it is one of the easiest. The coffee I now buy doesn't cost more than the admittedly high-end coffee I was already purchasing, and the shipping costs equate to a coffee or two out each month. Six months in, I am wondering why I didn't do this years ago. It is also only within the last year that I finally made my windows far more bird-safe, another of the 7 Simple Actions. Some mornings, especially during fall songbird migration, there would be more than one bird stunned or dead on my porch and taking action was long overdue.
The Pacific Birds region on the mainland is the seasonal northern home to a number of neotropical migrants, but they are short timers here. After the breeding season, the birds are off to Mexico, Central and South America, or even the Caribbean–some of the world's most important coffee growing regions.
The benefits of shade-grown
Coffee plantations can provide good habitat for birds, if managed correctly. According to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, shade is one of the key criteria for producing bird friendly coffee. The shade-grown plants might not produce as much as those in full sun, but the long-term benefits such as increased biodiversity and sustainability of the coffee plantations are trade-offs that many coffee producers are willing to make. (Note: "Bird-Friendly®" is used by the Smithsonian's certification program, but here “bird friendly” is used generically.)
When there is an overstory of tall trees above the coffee plants, they produce shade, but also a diversity of habitat niches that provide food, shelter, perches, and water that resident and migratory birds need. Sergio Gómez Villaverde, a biologist and bird bander who works for Birdlife Conservation in Oaxaca, Mexico, has seen the difference this overstory can make. Gómez operates a bird banding station in a shade-grown coffee plantation named "Hope." The station is part of the MoSI program–a collaborative, international network of bird banding stations in the Neotropics coordinated by The Institute for Bird Populations, that works to monitor neotropical migrant passerines on their wintering grounds. Gómez has been banding birds in this coffee plantation for the past three years.
The overstory coverage in this area is above 50%, with a variety of fruit trees and forest patches within the coffee plantation, and there is a wide diversity of birds that feed in the canopy and in the understory of the coffee plantation."
–Sergio Gómez Villaverde
The plantation is co-owned by local indigenous Mixteca authorities who work to preserve natural resources that are important to their culture. "The people in charge of this property plant native trees and avoid cutting and altering the natural composition of trees that grow within the plantation," says Gómez.
In general, the more shade, and the more native plant species in the overstory and canopy, the better for birds. And when birds depart for their northern breeding grounds, they will likely be heavier and healthier – better equipped to migrate, nest and raise young. As seen in the poster above, the number of species observed on coffee farms can increase about four-fold when shade (and the resultant ecological diversity) enters the picture. And while shade-grown techniques can benefit birds, birds in turn can benefit the coffee. Many neotropical migrants consume insects which feed on coffee berries like the coffee berry borer beetle. One study found that birds could cut beetle infestations by half, saving farmers substantial money.
Pacific Northwest birds migrate to coffee country
Gómez's station at the Hope Coffee Plantation records good numbers of seasonal migrants, among them birds that breed in the forests of the U.S. and Canada. Amongst the coffee bushes, Gómez has observed Swainson's Thrushes, Wilson's Warblers and Nashville Warblers, all found in the Pacific Birds region, as well as the more easterly Black-and-white Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Of the189 bird species recorded near the plantation, 45 species have been banded in the coffee plantation and many more are observed there. These include resident species such as the White-tailed Hummingbird, Yellow Grosbeak and Red-headed Tanager
Will my action make a difference?
Migratory birds face a number of challenges throughout the year, from the hazards inherent in migration to ecological shifts precipitated by climate change on the breeding grounds. Although there may be more critical issues for an overwintering species than whether or not coffee is sun or shade-grown, supporting bird friendly agriculture can make a real difference to many species on the ground, and to the people in the region striving to make a sustainable living.
There is so much to learn about the species we share with Mexico and other wintering locations, but the 7 Simple Actions provide some useful guidance for people who want to help now, from home. The steep population declines in a number of migratory, forest dwelling North American songbirds is well documented. We know that natural habitats, or those that provide a similar level of habitat complexity, can be good for birds, and we understand the power of numbers when it comes to conservation actions. That’s enough for me. When the migrants return next spring, I will feel better sipping my morning coffee knowing that I am least trying to be part of the solution
From the Smithsonian: the Ecological Benefits of Shade-grown Coffee
From Audubon: How to Choose a Bird-Friendly Coffee
From the New Food Economy: Can shade-grown coffee really save endangered migratory birds?
From American Bird Conservancy: Coffee Drinkers Increasingly Turning to Bird Friendly Blends