Bay Journal

Help save songbirds by using your bean when buying coffee

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on May 01, 2001
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The red-eyed vireo is a constant singer during its breeding season. It will even sing as it is fighting with the large insects it captures for food. The fruits or cherries, of the coffee shrub turn bright red when ripe. Within each fruit are two seed, or beans, that will be roasted, ground and brewed into a beverage.  (Francisco Osuna/Elan Organic Coffee )

You’re probably noticing that mornings aren’t as quiet as a few months ago. If you’re like me, sleeping with your windows open means that you awaken each morning to a chorus of chirps, peeps and whistles.

I used to spend Saturday mornings sipping coffee while scanning the landscape for any sign of life. But now, the little woodland behind my house is a flurry of activity as migratory songbirds, absent since late fall and winter, have returned.

Migratory birds nest in North America, where they eat insects and pollen — foods that are not available in winter. Therefore, they must migrate to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean for the winter. When spring returns to North America, so do the birds as they follow their food sources to their breeding grounds.

Many species of migratory birds are declining because of loss of habitat, or simply the food, water, cover and breeding areas needed for survival. Development continues to fragment or destroy the vital meadow, forest and wetland habitats these birds depend upon, both here and at their tropical wintering grounds.

We can not always do much to alter development, but there are ways in which we can, through personal choices, minimize impacts to wild birds. Coffee drinkers can conserve habitat and protect more than 150 migratory bird species just by choosing shade-grown coffee.

Until recently, coffee in the Americas was grown under existing forest cover or under trees that were planted by the coffee farmer. Traditional shade coffee farms include many layers of plants and trees that resemble a natural forest.

These farms meet the needs of forest-dependent birds. Their multiple layers provide protective cover, while trees and leaf litter harbor insects, spiders and other small prey for these birds. Meanwhile, flowering and fruiting trees provide food for other bird species.

Studies have found that shaded coffee plantations, with a diversity of tree species, support a variety of birds second only to an undisturbed forest. These include birds that reside in Latin America year-round as well as the birds that bring color and song to North America in the spring.

During the 1970s, a coffee fungus and demands for higher yield led to the development of densely planted, sun-tolerant coffee varieties. Major portions of shade coffee farms were converted to sun plantations. Although these farms produce a higher yield, they require more fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and frequent plant replacement, and are susceptible to drought and erosion.

As plantations are converted from shade to sun, the diversity of birds plummets. A sun plantation supports only 5–25 percent of the number of birds in shade plantations.

Coffee is the second most valuable legal export in the world, and North America accounts for more than one third of the consumption. Coffee drinkers can make a difference by selecting brands grown in the shade. Shade coffee, although considered a specialty item today, can be found in some grocery stores and coffee shops. If you do not see it in your favorite store, ask the manger to stock it.

By selecting shade-grown coffee, you are protecting important winter habitat for such birds as the ruby-throated hummingbird, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, ovenbird, northern oriole, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting and many more!

Not a coffee drinker? Here’s what you can do to conserve and protect our wonderful songbirds.

  • Create backyard habitat: By planting native trees, shrubs and other plants, homeowners provide badly needed food and cover for birds and other wildlife. Plant a variety of trees, shrubs and plants and remember to provide a source of water. Add feeders and nesting boxes to your backyard habitat. Larger landowners can protect or restore forests, fields and wetlands.
  • Reduce chemical use: Pesticides are intended to control specific pests. However, some harm or kill non-target species. Forty active pesticide ingredients have been linked to bird die-offs. The chemical compounds most often implicated in bird kills are organophosphorus and carbamate insecticides. If you must use a pesticide, choose one targeted specifically for your pest problem. Use low-impact pesticides like dormant oils, insecticidal soaps or repellents free of organic solvents. Contact your local cooperative extension service for more information.
  • Keep cats indoors: There are at least 68 million pet cats in the United States. Roaming cats kill birds. Studies have shown that birds make up 20–30 percent of cats’ prey. Cat owners can reduce the number of birds maimed and killed by keeping their cats indoors. Indoor cats also lead healthier and safer lives. For information, contact the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! Campaign at 202-778-9666 or

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff


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