Saturday, May 28, 2011

Coffee for the Birds

Note: Photographs accompanying this column are all tropical birds which migrate to North America to breed. Photographs were taken in Belize in March, 2011.

Magnolia Warbler
Most of our North American birds are NOT our birds. They are tropical birds which come north for a few months to take advantage of the rich protein which our temperate climate produces in the summer. This largely insect protein feeds parents and their young during their brief and intense breeding period. Then they all head back home to Central and South America. This includes nearly all of the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes (including the Hermit Thrush, Vermont’s state bird), and other song birds. These long distant migrants face daunting challenges on their travels, challenges made even greater by habitat loss, migratory obstacles (like radio towers), and pollutants. Those challenges are present before a massive oil spill is thrown into the mix, with its long-term effects.

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.”

Purple Martin
For hundreds of years, cultivation of coffee consisted of little more than planting the shrubs in an existing forest, a practice which was remarkably compatible with wildlife, especially birds. Research has shown that migrant species are abundant in the slightly disturbed habitat of the traditional coffee plantation; the overall biological diversity is second only to undisturbed forest.

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.”

Black-and-White Warbler
Brazil, the leader in world coffee production, has converted almost all of its farms to sun-coffee. A third of the coffee land in Mexico and Central America has been converted. “The vast majority of commercial coffee - the mass-produced stuff sold in cans on grocery store shelves - comes from [sun-coffee] farms in Brazil and Columbia.”

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.

Swainson's Thrush
When you buy coffee, look for three things on the label:

1) “shade-grown,”

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.

Gray Catbird
Finding coffee which is labeled as “shade-grown” may be difficult. A good alternative is to look for certified organic coffee, since most organic coffee is shade-grown. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) does research related to the conservation of neotropical migratory songbirds and has established criteria for shade management in coffee farms. Coupled with third-party organic certification, SMBC promotes environmentally sensitive coffee production through the labeling of coffee grown in accordance with a defined set of criteria for shade tree cover conducive to forest bird habitat. A growing number of organic inspectors are incorporating the SMBC's shade criteria into their own farm evaluations.

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.

Orchard Oriole
Shade-grown and/or organic coffee is more expensive than the supermarket canned stuff. But add up the extra cost of buying responsible coffee with the cost of bird seed for the year. If you can’t afford both, go for the coffee. Our local feeder birds can survive without our bird feeders. Our tropical migrants need a place to live winter after winter, if they are going to return spring after spring and fill our woods with their songs.

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.


Julie G. said...

Wonderful post!

Unknown said...

I'll be sure to hunt up some shade grown coffee around here. I love your opening comment: "Most of our North American birds are NOT our birds." I feel the same way. If we share the birds, why can't we share the planet?

Squirrel Proof Feeder said...

Great pictures there, I love all the birds I get in my garden but not a big fan of the squirrels that the feeders also attract.


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