When the migrants return home to the tropics, the challenges are even more daunting, for in many places their home habitat has been devastated. Can we do anything to help? Scott Weidensaul in his comprehensive summary of bird migration, Living on the Wind (North Point Press, 1999), summarizes in this way: “So many ecosystems are under assault in the tropics, so many seemingly inexorable pressures are working against conservation, that it is easy to despair. But one of the more intriguing ways to save migratory songbirds, and many tropical plants and animals with which they coexist, may also be the simplest: Have a cup of coffee. Strangely enough, this global addiction is both responsible for considerable environmental destruction and capable of reversing some of the damage.”
Now the bad news. In 1970, a fungal blight appeared in Brazil. Panicked farmers, with government encouragement, switched from shade-tolerant varieties to a dwarf coffee shrub which grows well in full sun. However, these sun-coffee farms are biological deserts; researchers found 90 percent fewer bird species on such farms. Weidensaul summarizes: “The coffee bushes grow in neat, orderly rows, packed close together and devoid of tree cover. Deprived of companion plants and organic mulch that foster soil fertility and prevent erosion, the farms must be augmented with synthetic fertilizers, and the coffee shrubs ... must be soaked with liberal applications of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, usually applied by workers with little training or protective clothing.”
The United States is the bastion of free market economy. You can be a good capitalist, an environmental activist, an advocate of social justice for farm laborers, and a birder committed to species protection by insisting that the coffee you buy is shade-grown coffee. Some of those terms may seem contradictory or incompatible. If you are offended by being a capitalist, focus on the activist and advocacy - or vice versa, if you prefer.
The fact is that how the beans in our morning cup of coffee were grown is more important to the long term diversity of our local bird life than the many dollars we spend on squirrel-proof bird feeders (there is no such thing) and those bags of bird seed. And don’t tell me you love watching the birds at your feeder if you are drinking cheap supermarket coffee out of a can. You are indulging yourself without being responsible.
2) “certified organic” - grown without the use of agrochemicals. Yields are lower than for standardly grown coffee, but not substantially so. It is also much safer for the poor laborers working the coffee plantations.
3) “certified fair trade” - With fair trade certification, coffee farmers band together into cooperatives and receive a set price for their coffee. The cooperatives must be democratically run and not practice discrimination.
Last week, I was in Philadelphia. I went to a large chain supermarket in an old working-class neighborhood to buy coffee. I was surprised to find a large section of the coffee aisle devoted to organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee. Our local supermarkets don’t begin to compare to the offering I found in Philadelphia. Here in southern Vermont, we pride ourselves in being “green,” eco-conscious, and socially responsible, but we have been lazy toward our local coffee retailers.
I harbor hopes that in a few years I will be able to take grandchildren into the woods for lessons in the language and life of birds. I hope they will be confused, initially, by the abundance of the songs and sounds they hear - rather than easily learning a few scattered songs. That initial confusion will mean that the neotropical migrants are surviving their long journeys and finding good habitat along the way.
I hope I can give grandchildren the pleasure of good birding. In a small way, I going to help by having a cup of coffee - shade-grown coffee, organic, and fair trade. Please join me.