Since its (apocryphal) discovery in East Africa by a shepherd who watched his goats joyfully cavort across the pasture shortly after eating the red berries from an unassuming shrub, coffee traditionally has been grown in the shade, under a canopy of trees offering habitat to a variety of avian species. However, in the early 1970s, “shade-grown” coffee began to give way to coffee grown under full sun, a transformation that would negatively impact numerous migratory and resident birds.
An estimated one-third of the migratory birds that have breeding grounds in the US are believed to seek solace in the warmer climes of Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean during the unforgiving winter months of the north. Many will make their homes in shade-grown coffee farms. These farms provide an attractive environment for scores of bird species, be they year-round avian residents such as toucans or parrots, or migratory birds such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, gray catbirds, Baltimore orioles or the cerulean warbler, a species of bird listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Hybrid, sun-tolerant dwarf coffee plants were introduced to produce bigger yields, and immediately became popular among many coffee growers. However, clear cutting to make room for the dwarf varieties has taken its toll on the forest environment and its inhabitants. Though research is sparse on the full impacts of sun-grown coffee plantations on migratory birds, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) indicates that “[T]he few studies that have been conducted have found that the diversity of migratory birds plummets when coffee is converted from shade to sun. One study found a decrease from 10 to 4 common species of migratory birds.” The SMBC adds: “As for the overall avifauna, studies in Colombia and Mexico found 94–97% fewer bird species in sun-grown coffee than in shade-grown coffee.”
The shaded farms not only protect birds from harsh weather, they also harbor orchids, ferns, and lichens upon which some birds nest, and provide food in the form of fruit and insects. In return, birds aid the coffee farmers by consuming pests harmful to coffee plants and their berries, such as the coffee berry borer, considered the most destructive insect to sun-grown coffee farms. The sun-filtering canopy of a shade-coffee plantation also helps keep soil moist and therefore less susceptible to erosion. It combats global warming by filtering carbon dioxide. Unlike sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee does not depend on heavy inputs of environmentally unfriendly fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides—relying instead on leaf litter to provide nutrients and inhibit weed growth, and providing habitat for other pest-removing animals such as frogs, spiders and ants.
A number of coffee growers now participate in third party coffee certification processes which verify that the coffee has been produced in accordance with established socially and environmentally responsible standards, such as “organic,” “fair trade,” and “shade-grown.” Conscientious consumers seeking to preserve habitat for resident and migratory birds would do well to seek out coffee bearing SMBC’s own organic, shade-grown “Bird Friendly” label.