How many of us spend our first hours of the day sitting near a window, watching the action at our bird feeders, while sipping a cup of coffee? Millions I would imagine. That coffee you are drinking could very well play into the health and survival of songbirds in South and Central America. Before the advent of international coffee growing corporations, this bean that brings us so much pleasure was grown in small plantations on shrubs that grew underneath the tall canopy of rain forests. But in order to produce the millions of pounds of coffee needed to meet the demands of a caffeine loving world, those old, tall trees have been cut down and replaced with neat rows of coffee trees that sit in the full sun and make harvest easier. In Colombia alone, more than 60% of forest used to grow coffee plants was razed and replaced by varieties of coffee that were developed to flourish in full sun. This happened from the 1970s to the 1990s and not surprisingly, it was at this time that the numbers of Neotropical migratory species went into a steep decline.
This has not only meant the loss of millions of acres of old growth forest, it has created the need for fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to protect the shrubs which no longer have the same soil and growing conditions they had in their original habitat.I first became aware of this problem and the availability of special “Shade Grown” coffee a couple of decades ago when I was responsible for the small gift store at our Environmental Learning Center. Once you learn how coffee was traditionally grown and how it is grown in most places today and the impact it has on countless bird species, you realize that we all play an important role in this business.
There is a human side to this story also. The small family farmers who grow coffee in Central and South America cannot compete with the large corporations that own thousands of hectares of coffee plantations, but when given the opportunity to grow certified, organic, shade grown coffee, they not only live in a healthier environment, but they can earn more selling their beans to the gourmet market.
A number of years ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Belize and a Shade Grown Coffee farm. It wasn’t long before we saw a number of birds – both large and small in and among the trees. We also saw a small deer in the same area. We toured the compound where the beans were spread on a concrete pad to be sorted and dried before being taken to the building where they were roasted and then bagged up for shipment.
I’m guessing that a lot of Americans have very little idea of where their coffee comes from or how it’s grown. For those of us who conscientiously feed the birds every day, it behooves us to be knowledgeable of how our daily habits can influence for better or worse, the lives of birds. You buy bird seed to treat the birds, why not buy some ‘bird friendly’ coffee to treat yourself and the birds?
This beautiful Red Siskin is found in Venezuela, but is seriously threatened by loss of habitat due to clearing of forests to make sun grown coffee plantations.
These two links will take you to sites that sell the Shade Grown varieties of coffee and give you more background on the whole process and impact on ecosystems.
By Kate Crowley