To Help Save Habitat, Drink this Coffee by Susan Harris

bird friendly

Sure, you can buy coffee that’s certified organic, but there’s another certification that includes organic and goes even farther – Bird-Friendly Coffee.

Our seal of approval ensures tropical “agroforests” are preserved and migratory birds find a healthy haven when they travel from your backyard to those faraway farms producing the beans you so enjoy every morning.

Every cup of Bird Friendly coffee you drink encourages more farmers to grow in the shade, which is good for birds and for people


But who’s doing the certifying, you ask? USDA-accredited agencies using science-based criteria created by none other than the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, a research and conservation organization that deserves more attention than its nonexistent promotional budget allows. Their research in the heavily deforested regions of Central and South America where coffee is grown reveals that the best chance of increasing habitat there is to turn tree-less fields into shade-grown coffee farms.


I asked the director of the Smithsonian’s coffee program, Dr. Robert Rice, about the difference between shade-grown and, in my words, “regular” coffee. He explained that most coffee is grown in full sun, in fields like the ones above in Costa Rica and Peru, because full sun increases the yield and profits.

But coffee is an understory shrub from East Asia Africa, where it produces beans among trees, so the challenge is making it just as profitable and easy for farmers to grow coffee among trees. Here’s the pitch Rice’s team is making to growers:

  • The production costs are lower because coffee plants live 10-18 years and demand high levels of expensive agrochemical inputs in full sun, but live up to 30 or more in shade, where nutrients are recycled naturally in these agroforestry systems.
  • Consumers are already paying 10- to 30-cents more per pound for organically certified coffee, and many of these environmentally concerned buyers will pay a bit more to save habitat.

There ARE other coffees being sold as “shade-grown,” but the Smithsonian certification goes a step further…

requiring a variety of native shade trees throughout the coffee plantation. Through decades of research, we’ve learned the combination of foliage cover, tree height and diversity needed to provide suitable migratory bird habitat while maintaining productive farms. Producers must be recertified every three years to ensure they continue to meet these requirements and can truly call themselves Bird-Friendly.

Some shade-grown programs don’t require shade trees meet a minimum height—a factor studies proved is critical to create quality habitat for neotropical migrants and resident birds.

The Smithsonian’s certification requires the presence of at least 11 different species of shade trees be grown, and that they be at least 12 meters tall so that there will be a variety of habitat niches for birds. Here’s what a coffee farm looks like after it’s been reforested and certified as Bird-Friendly.


Here are just some of the migrating birds whose winter habitats are being preserved by growing coffee in shade. Clockwise from upper left they are: Magnolia Warbler, Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Black and White Warbler, and Black-Throated Blue Warbler. They’re familiar to us here in North America but they spend the winter in mid-elevation parts of Central and South America.


Because the availability of insects is critical to these birds, the Migratory Bird Center is researching which trees sustain the most insects. It’s known, for example, that here in the temperate zone of North America, Tulip Poplars and Redbuds support about 19 species of insects while oaks support 557 species! So the Bird-Friendly team is studying which shade tree species best serve birds’ culinary demands so they can recommend them to growers interested in maximizing the habitat value of their farm.

How You Can Help

With no budget for promotion, the Bird-Friendly certification is still largely unknown in the U.S.  Dr. Rice tells me it’s better known in the U.K. because of endorsements by top birding organizations, and especially in Japan where two roasters there “are killing it,” thanks to the importance of birds as symbols of nature in Japanese culture.

In the U.S., the Bird-Friendly certification has been endorsed by Cornell and some bird organizations and been written about in a few birding magazines. All nature organizations are being asked to help, but maybe GardenRant readers could give them a nudge.

And if you’re a garden or nature writer, you know what to do.

Photos courtesy Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

To Help Save Habitat, Drink this Coffee originally appeared on Garden Rant on December 4, 2015.


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