Bird Watcher's General Store

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Shade-Grown Coffee Saves Vital Habitat For The Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

While shopping on Beacon Hill this morning I noticed that one of the fancy shops was selling something called “shade-grown” coffee, which is supposed to be “bird friendly.” Does shade-grown coffee actually benefit birds or is it just another way for the fancy shops to charge fancy prices by adding a fancy name?

– Bill, Boston, MA


Wow, Bill,

You sure have a “fancy” vocabulary there. Those shopping trips to Beacon Hill must be rubbing off on you. I really like going to Beacon Hill, too, but I was kicked out of there once for walking my dog. Walking a dog is okay, but my dog wasn’t wearing a sweater and that’s not acceptable in that part of town. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m lucky I wasn’t arrested. But I shouldn’t make fun of the Beacon Hill crowd. A local socialite, Harriet Hemmenway, who lived just a few blocks from the Hill, started the Audubon Society. Sure, she was fancy, but her efforts did more to help birds than anyone up to that point in human history, except for maybe Noah.

I totally understand why you might be suspicious about buying a product based on a gimmicky name. It wasn’t too long ago that many of us gobbled up gallons of Häagen-Dazs thinking we had found some kind of mystical Copenhagen-ish dessert, only to discover later that we were eating ice cream made by two guys in the Bronx. The Häagen-Dazs thing was just some exotic-sounding name they dreamed up to help sell their product. I guess I can’t blame the Bronx boys for coming up with a better name. Their original name, “Cousin Frankie’s Frozen Stiffs,” didn’t have the right ring to it.

Another tricky one was the “mountain grown” coffee ad campaign. Remember that? We were made to believe that one company’s coffee was special because it was mountain grown. It turns out that most coffee is grown in the mountains. Once again the name or description meant very little. However, this is not the case with shade-grown coffee. Growing coffee in the shade is very important. Before I tell why it’s so important, here’s a little coffee history for you. (You may want to grab yourself a large cup of coffee right now to help you stay awake for this next part.)

It is thought that the people living in the highlands of what is now Ethiopia were the first to use coffee. However, these people simply ate the beans and never made “coffee” out of them. After all, who needs a hot drink in Africa? The first use of coffee as a beverage can be traced to the mountains of the Arabian Peninsula where it was commercialized by an ancient tribe of capitalists known as the “Starbuckians.” From there the coffee crop slowly spread throughout most of the world’s tropical regions, eventually finding its way to the Americas.

For centuries the preferred method of growing coffee was under the canopy because coffee plants are sun-sensitive. This practice also allowed the beans to mature more slowly, which resulted in more flavor. All this changed in the early 1970s when a sun-tolerant coffee plant was introduced. The sun-tolerant plants, while not as flavorful, did produce a higher yield, causing many farmers to cut down the canopy in favor of the new plants. The higher yield came with a price, however. The new sun-tolerant coffee plants required more fertilizer, more pesticides and more clear-cutting, which led to fewer birds. Many conservation organizations, including the Smithsonian, sounded the alarm. Ninety percent of the birds that once lived in the area around coffee plantations disappeared in matter of years. That’s not good.

What many people in the North don’t realize is that the birds that are lost to this new method of growing coffee aren’t just the weird tropical birds most of us never knew existed in the first place. We are losing “our” birds, too. Orioles, catbirds, tanagers, hummingbirds, thrushes and other birds that come to our yards each summer must travel back to the tropics in order to survive the winter. These are the birds that are suffer when the coffee canopy is removed. They need the native trees for cover, feeding and roosting. In the past thirty years almost half of the coffee canopy cover has been lost to clear-cutting.

Some people will argue that shade-grown coffee costs more. Oh, please! Have you been to a coffee shop lately? Have you seen those prices? In my town the hoboes stand on the street corners saying, “Pssst! Buddy, can you spare $4.75 for a cup of coffee?” A few cents more won’t change a thing, except it will help keep our orioles and hummers coming back each spring.

To answer your question, Bill, yes, yes, yes, shade-grown coffee does benefit birds. Not only should you buy it, you should seek it out. This is one of the easiest earth-friendly things you can do. You don’t have to march in protest, chain yourself to a tree, wear a tie-dyed shirt or grow a beard. You only have to buy the right kind of coffee. Although, you could wear a tie-dyed shirt if you wanted to; just don’t wear it on Beacon Hill or you’ll be banished from there like me and my sweater-less dog.