Sip the right coffee to help the birds

Posted: Friday, October 20, 2000

Alaska's neotropical migratory birds are heading south to their second homes this month. They will fly for thousands of miles, burning only a few ounces of fat and muscle for fuel. Birds have a phenomenal metabolism that allows them to fly day and night until they reach their destination.

Birdwatchers find themselves in awe and envy. For slower-paced humans, sometimes it is almost too much energy just to get out of bed and walk to somewhere to watch the birds. That's when people turn to coffee.

Ironically, your choice in coffee actually could have an impact on the birds. It may at first sound far-fetched, but a cup of coffee drunk in Alaska could affect a bird's perch in Latin America.

A large percentage of birds that nest in North America winter in Central America and parts of Mexico. A comparison of winter and summer ranges usually shows a bottleneck in Central America of higher bird densities. Furthermore, Northern-breeding birds have to compete with the hundreds of species that live in the tropics year round. So good bird habitat is at a premium. This is why deforestation for modern agriculture in Latin America has taken a heavy toll on songbirds.

In addition to loss of habitat, migratory birds are at risk from exposure to agricultural pesticides. The same high metabolism that allows them to fly on amazing migratory journeys makes them prone to poisoning. They breathe faster, grow faster and eat a lot more for their size than we do. They also reach toxic levels of pesticides up to 100 times faster than mammals.

Plus, when a farmer sprays to get rid of a certain pest, almost all the insects in the area may be killed. Insects are the foundation for the diets of most neotropical migratory birds. For example, Wilson's Warblers, a local neotropical migrant whose populations have decreased in Pacific regions over the past 20 years, eat mostly flies, bees and caterpillars.

Fortunately there is a crop that, when grown in the traditional way, can provide habitat for birds: coffee.

Not all coffee is grown this way, but there are systems emerging to identify and support farms that do.

Americans drink about a third of the total world coffee crop. It is the second largest traded export commodity after oil. A commitment from even a small percentage of American consumers to support "bird-friendly" coffee could have large consequences for birds.

Birders who are coffee lovers can help the birds and have their coffee too if they choose the right brew.

So what kind of coffee is good for bird habitat? According to an in-depth report from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), there are two main things to look for.

The first is whether a coffee is organically grown. If a coffee is certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association International (OCIA), it is guaranteed grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. While the certification system is not perfect because it leaves out some farms that use only traditional methods but cannot afford the certification, it is generally respected and standardized.

The second consideration is whether a coffee is shade grown. Shade coffee is grown, as its name implies, under the canopy, or shade, of taller trees. Coffee plants, by nature are a shade-loving plant. A few strains have been developed that tolerate more sunlight. On at least half of coffee farms, taller trees are left in place with the coffee shrubs growing underneath. The trees provide habitat for birds. A recent study found 150 species using shade coffee plantations in Mexico as compared to only 4 species in the sun plantations.

Clearly it will not be as biologically rich as virgin rainforest but it is much better habitat than open monocrops. And in developing countries where setting aside parklands and reserves may be difficult, the plantations become all the more important.

Biologists found that it is essential not simply to have trees, but to have the right kind and quantity of trees. Birds prefer at least three species, and ideally an array of trees from the original forest type creating at least 30% cover.

There are some coffees that claim to be shade-grown when in fact there are only a few trees or only a single species on the farm. According to Grady Saunders, past president of Specialty Coffee Association of America, there is no international agreement on standards for quantifying what constitutes shade coffee. This makes it difficult for consumers.

Organizations such as the Audubon Society are working to identify sources of shade-grown "bird-friendly" coffees. Some, such as the Thanksgiving's Songbird Coffee, give a portion of the proceeds to bird conservation organizations.

Meanwhile organic coffees are readily available nearly everywhere. They are generally slightly more expensive. But it seems a bargain when you consider the impact of your choice. If it might make a difference to a beautiful Yellow Warbler that graces your favorite trail each spring, is it worth saving a few cents a cup?

So how does bird-friendly coffee compare in flavor? According to Saunders, a main factor in coffee quality is the strain of bean used. Arabica is superior. So far organic and shade coffees are typically carried by specialty coffee companies that use the better quality beans. Gourmet coffee lovers should be able to find a choice brew among the more environmentally friendly coffees.

Take a sip, close your eyes and imagine a tropical plantation with colorful birds fluttering through the mists that rise from your cup.

Gwen Baluss is a local ornithologist. For further information, see Juneau Audubon Society is sponsoring a field trip to Blind Slough near Petersburg Nov. 4-6. For information, call 780-9544.

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