How to Save Songbirds with Your Morning Coffee
Thumbnail image: Guillermo Santos
[Lisa Kopp] We are so excited to have you here today. This webinar today is being hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And we’re going to be talking about coffee and conservation, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from the video. Before we get started with today’s webinar, I wanted to make sure to read the land acknowledgment, as this is a hosted event by Cornell University, which is based in Ithaca, New York. So:
Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohono the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogohono are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogohono dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohono people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is home to a community of researchers and supporters from all around the world who appreciate birds and the integral role that they play in our ecosystems, which we’ll be talking quite a bit about today. Our mission is to advance leading-edge research, education, and citizen science that helps solve pressing conservation challenges. And this work, including today’s webinar, is funded primarily by people like you who choose to become a member. So if you enjoy today’s webinar, I hope you’ll consider joining by visiting birds.cornell.edu.
My name is Lisa Kopp. I’m on the Visitor Center Team at the Cornell Lab, and I’ll be hosting today’s conversation. And with us we have Amanda Rodewald and Ruth Bennett. Welcome to you both.
[Ruth Bennett] Hey, Lisa. Thanks for having us.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, I’m so excited to get into this. So I do have a couple of tech things to run through, and then we’ll get into the good stuff. So we will be starting out with some questions that I’ll be asking Ruth and Amanda, but we want to be sure we’re answering questions from you all. So please use the Q&A tool that you will find at the bottom of your Zoom screen, and that way we will be answering questions live and through typed responses. I have a couple of wonderful colleagues who are helping out behind the scenes who will be there to assist with things that come up. We also have the chat tool in Zoom, which we’re going to be using just for technical assistance. So please be sure to use the Q&A for questions for Ruth and Amanda and the chat if you have something coming up with your Zoom or we will also be using the chat to share important links that you may want to visit after the webinar.
We are also streaming live to Facebook, so hello to all of you watching on the Lab’s Facebook page. And you are welcome to add your questions in the comments section. We will be– Again, I have some wonderful colleagues behind the scenes who will be passing some of those questions along to me, and we don’t want to leave you out. So please, please ask those questions. But please do not click on any links that show up in the Facebook chat unless they are from the Lab of Ornithology. We’ve had some spam and bot issues, so we don’t want anyone to get caught up in any of that.
So last thing is that if you registered via Zoom, you will be getting an email from us with a recording of today’s talk. If you happen to be on Facebook and you are missing out on that email, you can visit the Bird Academy website and go to the Open Lectures tab. And you will be able to watch this video, along with many, many other recorded webinar videos that we have. So I think that’s everything. I think those are the important things. And let’s go ahead and get started.
So obviously the first and most important thing is I want to have Ruth and Amanda introduce themselves. So can we start with Amanda? And then we’ll go on to Ruth.
[Amanda Rodewald] Great. Thanks. I’m so happy to be with you all today. First, a big thanks to my colleagues Lisa and also Sarah and Chelsea behind the scenes for organizing this. So I work at the Lab of Ornithology where I direct the Center for Avian Population Studies, and I’m also a professor within the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at Cornell. And most of my work has focused on identifying how we can conserve biodiversity and also sustain the important services that we get from healthy environments and do that in a way where we’re also accommodating human needs. So you might imagine that coffee’s been a real special interest for me over the years.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. Thank you. And Ruth?
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, hi to everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here today, and a special thanks to Lisa and the Lab of Ornithology for inviting me. So I am a research ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, where I work with the bird-friendly coffee certification. I work primarily on the research side, strengthening the scientific criteria and the scientific basis of the certification, so that we can make sure that we’re conserving the most birds possible with our standard.
I also come originally from Cornell University. I conducted my PhD research in Amanda Rodewald’s lab, primarily in coffee agroforestry systems throughout Central America. And I first got interested in birds and coffee while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. So that was the first opportunity I had to see coffee plantations in real life and really experience the great diversity of birds and other wildlife that can be associated with those landscapes.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. Again, welcome. And thank you to you both. So the video that we just watched– and sorry about the sound at the beginning. I had even practiced pressing the right button and, of course, forgot. But the video, the beautiful video we just watched is from the Smithsonian. And so Ruth, I wanted to talk with you first, as you’re from the Smithsonian as well, so why are we talking about birds and coffee? What’s the connection there?
[Ruth Bennett] Sure. A great question. So I think a lot of coffee drinkers and coffee aficionados in the United States and Canada don’t think much about where their coffee comes from. We think more about the flavors and the smell, the experience of drinking coffee. But coffee is actually farmed in some of the most biodiverse places on the planet. And that’s mid-elevation landscapes throughout the tropics that are dominated by tropical montane forest and tropical cloud forests. These tropical forests and the native trees that are associated with them are home to unique species of birds and mammals and plants found nowhere else on the planet. And these coffee farms and coffee landscapes are also the winter home to many of the migratory bird species that breed in the US and Canada and spend their winters, often seven, eight months of the year, in these tropical landscapes.
So we don’t have great data on many of the tropical species associated with these landscapes, but we do have really good data about what’s happening with migratory birds. So a joint study with Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Smithsonian a few years ago showed that over three billion birds have been lost from North America in the past 50 years. And the majority of those species are migratory birds. So something is happening with these migratory birds, probably associated with the loss of habitat on their wintering grounds.
So loss of habitat on the wintering grounds, loss of these tropical forests, loss of tropical trees is driven primarily by the expansion and intensification of commercial agriculture. And coffee agriculture is part of that problem. But uniquely, coffee agriculture can also be part of the solution.
So coffee evolved as an understory shrub that grows under closed canopy forest. And when it’s cultivated in this traditional style as an understory shrub with a great diversity of trees above it, those farms provide high quality habitat for migratory birds and also many species of resident birds. So we call this type of coffee cultivation system bird-friendly coffee. And that’s what we certify and seek to promote at the Smithsonian.
These systems really are better for birds. In Peru, we found a single bird-friendly coffee farm can have over 250 species of birds that live on it actively. And that’s nearly the same diversity of birds as nearby forest. But unfortunately, this is not how most coffee is grown today. Less than 20% of coffee globally has any shade on it at all. So the trend is certainly the elimination of these closed canopy forests above the coffee, the reduction of the number of tree species, the reduction of shade cover. And when that happens, when that intensification process happens, it causes a massive loss in bird diversity and the diversity of associated wildlife.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so fascinating and such an important point that you made. I think so many people in North America or the Northeast where we’re located think of the birds that they see at their feeders in their backyards as our birds, when realistically, so many of these birds are spending the majority of the year in Central and South America. Do you have any– Are there any banner species that I might see in New York State in my feeder that are going down to these coffee plantations that would be greatly affected by the way things are being grown?
[Ruth Bennett] Sure. So common backyard birds: Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Oriole. Those are species that have really high abundances on Central American and Mexican coffee plantations. And then the majority of the migratory warblers live on these coffee plantations, so American Redstarts, Wilson’s Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Cerulean Warblers. All of them are found in those shade trees above the coffee.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. Thank you. So Amanda, you’ve spent a lot of time on coffee plantations over the years. Could you talk a little bit about what it’s like to be in a shade grown coffee plantation, and obviously compared to a habitat that is not as conducive to biodiversity?
[Amanda Rodewald] Yeah, sure. Yes, I first visited shade coffee farms back in 2005 when I started working on them in Venezuela, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I had heard about them, a lot of the information that Ruth just shared. But I was so impressed with how forest-like many of these farms were. So on the one end you could have these– essentially, you’re walking into forest where it’s maybe thinned a little bit and you have coffee grown in the understory, and then there are others that might be not quite as complex or diverse with trees but they’re always such a world apart from these sun coffee plantations. So to imagine sun coffee, right? It’s like a corn field, a monoculture but of coffee plants, versus this forest.
And there’s so much biodiversity that you can find in these coffee farms. And that’s not to de-emphasize the importance of uncultivated forest. That’s important, too. But these coffee farms are really incredible. And the migratory birds and resident species that are using them are really fun to experience because many of them are moving through in these flocks with multiple species. We call them mixed-species flocks. And so as you’re in a coffee farm, it might be quiet. But all of a sudden, you start hearing chips coming through and the canopy, and boom, it’s alive with birds. And so it can be really exciting for bird watching.
So probably not surprisingly, some coffee farms are actually starting to look into how they can attract bird watchers and other ecotourists. And just to give you just a sense of how diverse these flocks are, with some research that I’ve done with graduate students, we found that the average flock we were finding in Venezuela and Colombia had about 18 species and 30 individuals. And about a third of those are the neotropical migrants that Ruth has mentioned.
And one other little tidbit here is that the same way a lot of our migratory birds return to the same sites to breed year after year, something we call site fidelity– they’re really faithful to their breeding locations– Well, many of these migratory birds are also site faithful to some of those coffee farms. We had on one of our coffee farms a female Cerulean Warbler that returned to the same part of the farm for five years in a row. So it’s really cool to see these connections between breeding grounds and wintering grounds for these species.
[Lisa Kopp] Right. And you can only imagine what it would be like for that Cerulean Warbler if one year that coffee plantation turned into a monoculture field and she lost that place that she had probably successfully been returning to year over year. Yeah. Ruth, do you have anything to add about the experience of being in a coffee plantation? I’m enjoying hearing and imagining what it’s like.
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, absolutely. Everything Amanda mentioned, that’s exactly what it’s like. In these bird-friendly farms, they are buzzing with life. And the bird calls that you hear there are insane. You could hear Three-wattled Bellbird, Resplendent Quetzals, like very cool forest-associated species will move into in these farms.
And I just want to mention the contrast between our bird-friendly forest-like farms and full-sun monoculture is extreme. When you’re in a full-sun monoculture coffee farm, it feels hot. It’s dry. It smells vaguely of agrochemicals. It’s not a place where you want to just hang out and spend time. And in contrast, it’s not buzzing with life. You do not hear those same bird calls all around you. You don’t have the experience of being essentially in a forest-like environment. So it doesn’t take a scientist to know that you’re going to protect more birds when you keep all of these associated trees over them.
[Lisa Kopp] So we’re going to shift in a few minutes to talk a little bit about the communities surrounding these coffee farms, but I’m just curious in hearing a little bit more about beyond the obvious, that a shade area is attractive to birds, what is it specifically that is of benefit to the birds coming back to these areas? I assume there’s better food for them, all of the things that allow them to survive and flourish are in these forests. But are there sort of certain things that we know for sure are really attractive to them about these shade grown coffee plantations?
[Ruth Bennett] Sure, I can take that. So we know with just our migratory birds, each species has a unique niche. It has a unique type of food and a unique place in the habitat that it’s going to look for food. So I conducted my PhD research studying in Golden-winged Warblers, which only really look for food in these coffee farms in dead hanging leaves that are suspended in the middle of the forest canopy. So they’re not up at the very top. They’re not down in the coffee plants. You need that unique feature there. And every additional migratory warbler and Wood Thrush and oriole has its own unique requirement, its own unique place where it looks for food.
So when you have a lot of diversity in the vegetation, you have a lot of unique niches. So you can support many species of birds. Whereas in full-sun coffee monoculture, you only have really one niche. You have underneath the coffee plants and the coffee plants themselves. So there are far fewer types of food available there and far fewer places for birds to look for food.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so fascinating. Thanks for that. So Amanda, I am a little familiar with this topic, working at the Lab of Ornithology, so I’ve heard about the fact that these shade grown coffee farms are better for local communities. So I’m curious to hear more about how this kind of farming practice can help the people who live in these regions.
[Amanda Rodewald] Sure, yeah. There are many different kinds of benefits to growing coffee in shade rather than sun. And as you might expect, which of those benefits are going to resonate most strongly with any given farmer or their family or community might be different. And so on the one end, I have spoken with some farmers in Columbia who expressed that the reason and one of the real benefits to them of growing shade coffee was because that was the tradition in the family. Their parents had done that. They grew up seeing that. They valued both the tradition and to them, just the shade coffee farms and those trees, that forest-like structure was beautiful to them and meaningful.
And others might be really choosing to grow and use that shade growing practice because of other benefits associated with a healthy environment. So we heard some of those in the video, right? So for example, trees that are planted in coffee farms can also provide food or other products that can be used by the farmer as a different income stream or directly by the family. So they might be growing avocados or citrus in those farms, for example. Some farmers, too, will plant trees that fix nitrogen. And so those help to really bring more nutrients into the soil. That would be a benefit.
Ruth was mentioning how the trees really can cool temperatures and make for much moister conditions within the farms. Those actually help to create healthier environments where they can grow better crops of coffees. And even in the video, they mentioned about landslides. So you might picture many of the coffee growing regions have very steep mountainous slopes. And during the rainy season, they’re very prone to landslides, which can be devastating for communities and can shut down access, can really impact water quality. But having trees and those roots on slopes can stabilize them.
And of course, one of the ecosystem benefits that we’re always excited about is the pest control services that birds provide. So we know that roughly about half of the species in a lot of these flocks are insectivorous. And many of the non-flocking species eat insects. And so some of the insects they eat are the very ones that will damage coffee plants and reduce the yields that farmers can get.
And so there’s been there have been studies where they actually use exclosures, so they’ll put kind of nets around some of the coffee plants to keep birds out, and then they’ll compare it to plants where birds had access to the insects. And so they can compare the yields. And birds can– having enough birds in a farm that they’re able to suppress some of the pest insect populations can actually increase yields for farmers. So again, there are many different ways that the farmers and the communities can benefit from shade coffee and the healthy environments that they provide.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so fascinating that there– One of the questions I was going to ask was whether there are specific companion crops that are grown with coffee, but it sounds like there are many different options. Is that a fair statement? Wow, that’s great. So we’ve got a couple of questions in the Q&A that are sort of related to what you’re touching on. One is the cost to farmers and what are the economic realities as it relates to both farming and then producing shade grown coffee? Does it increase profits for the farmers? Does it cost them more to get started? And then there is a question in here about the certification process, which we’ll get to a little bit later, but I just wanted to hear a little more about what it’s like economically for the people producing the coffee.
[Amanda Rodewald] Yes, sure, I can jump in first. And I just want to follow up, Lisa, just mentioning about those different kind of crops and which crops might do well with helping farmers and revenue streams. I mean, there’s some active research that’s been happening with that, the American Bird Conservancy, and I know Ruth has been involved with really rigorous work trying to identify those mix of different species and other crops, so that’s a really cool area of research right now.
But yeah, more broadly, the economics are an essential piece that we need to consider, if we want to try to get more shade coffee on the landscapes because growing coffee is not an easy path. It’s not an easy way to make a living. It’s challenging. And even under the best conditions, if you had the best growing conditions, the market for coffee internationally is incredibly volatile, especially for commodity coffee, so where it’s not like in any sort of specialty market. So farmers are often having to deal with very low prices and also high costs in terms of labor.
And so yeah, there is– So most people will assume that growing sun coffee is going to be most profitable. And they make that assumption based on yields. And it’s true that, in general, sun coffee can provide greater yields, although, as we all know, a lot of it’s going to depend on the site and the weather and the conditions. But it’s not so simple, in terms of how that plays out in terms of the ultimate profits that a farmer might receive, because profits don’t only track yields. It also can track the quality of the coffee bean, and so coffee varieties that tend to be grown in shade are of better quality and they may get higher prices. Coffee that grows in cooler and more moist conditions usually is of higher quality. So again, that can get a higher price on the market.
And we’ve also even shown that sometimes just the yields, you might actually find when you have enough canopy or trees to support a healthy bird community that suppresses some of the insect pests, that compensates for some of the differences in yield between sun and shade. And then other factors like there are fewer inputs that are required to have shade coffee because you already have this healthy environment that’s providing some of the nutrients and the water and the other services that the coffee needs to survive.
But it’s true that we haven’t really figured out the right blend of incentives to start really moving the dial as much as we need to and getting more shade coffee out there. I know Ruth has been actively engaged with some research on this topic as well, with trying to find the right blend of incentives for different farmers. And certification is one route, but it’s certainly not the only one.
[Lisa Kopp] So–
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, that’s– Oh, I was just going to follow up on that, Amanda, and say that absolutely, finding ways to support farmers that want to keep shade on these plantations is one of our tasks in the bird-friendly certification program. So we know a lot of farmers prefer shaded systems. They tend to be much more resilient to market fluctuations, to climate change, to farm level economic pressures. So if you have mixed crops like fruit trees and timber trees mixed in with your coffee plantation, if the coffee price drops, you have other sources of income that you can fall back on. That’s a much more resilient system for farmers.
But if there is no money for coffee, the type of production that comes from these shaded systems, then farmers will choose to eliminate all of those safeguards that they have on their plantation just to try to make ends meet. So finding ways to support farmers and also to push the coffee industry, which is a massive industry with a lot of money, to require that farms– or only source from farms that are keeping these shade trees is a way that we’re really actively invested in right now to try to provide more money to farmers, actual living wages to farmers that are growing coffee in these types of systems.
[Amanda Rodewald] And I’ll just add just one piece, too, about incentives. Some of the incentives for companies are even sort of naturally arising out of having resilient supply chains for their coffee. And so you see different companies like Nespresso, which are actively planting millions of trees on the farms from which they’re sourcing their beans because that’s the best way to ensure that they’re going to have a high quality product given climate change that’s happening.
[Lisa Kopp] And someone has asked a fun question, which I know is totally subjective, but is shade grown coffee better tasting? It sounds like that’s sort of what you’re indicating, but according to coffee experts, is it better tasting?
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, so we work with dozens of roasters that purchase and roast bird-friendly coffee, so coffee that comes from these highly shaded plantations, and they regularly tell us that the quality of bird friendly coffee is very high and consistently higher than adjacent sun monocultures. So when coffee is grown under shade, it takes longer for the coffee plant to develop, and it takes longer for the berry and the seed within it, which is what we roast, to develop. That longer development period means there’s more time for the flavors from the berry to reach into that seed. There’s more time for the seed to develop structural complexities that aren’t there in these very rapid growing full-sun monocultures. So yeah, for consumers, purchasing a coffee that’s grown under shade typically means that it tastes better.
[Lisa Kopp] And I just want to point out something really important that I think you just said– We’ve got a couple of questions about why is bird friendly coffee so much more expensive? Or why wouldn’t all farmers be doing this if there are all these benefits? But it sounds like what you just mentioned, which is that it takes longer to grow coffee, is maybe one major factor. If the coffee plants aren’t just baking under the sun constantly and sprouting super fast and they can keep the production going at a really high rate, that may be one of the deterrents that people are running into. Is that a fair statement?
[Ruth Bennett] Sure, so it takes a little bit longer to produce but also the yields from shade grown coffee are lower than they are for hybrids that were developed specifically to take advantage of full sunlight. So a lot of very high quality varieties of coffee can only be grown under shade, but there has been a lot of research and development into fast-growing hybrids that grow well in full sun.
So for coffee farmers that trade on the commodity market, if you’re competing with your shade grown farm against a farm next to you that chopped down all their shade, converted to these fast growing varieties, it’s really hard to make a profit compared to your neighbor. So one of the things the bird-friendly coffee does is help farmers leave that commodity market and trade on specialty markets, where farmers have much more power to negotiate the prices that they want with the buyers. So when you have high quality coffee, that’s pretty much a prerequisite for entering specialty markets, which most bird-friendly coffee farmers have. And then having a certification, that also helps you enter a specialized market where you can negotiate your own prices.
[Amanda Rodewald] And that’s one of the places– I guess it’s good for folks to realize that when we talk about specialty markets, again, this is– so commodity where every bean is the same, doesn’t matter, no differentiation. It’s just the amount you produce. Then the specialty markets, when we think about those, certifications are sort of one track. But other specialty markets can also be these direct trade ones, it could be shade, you know fair trade– I mean, there are a number– organic– Any way that a farmer’s coffee is distinguished just from others in some way–
And so certifications, one of the reasons, I think, why they may sometimes cost more is of course you do have more of an infrastructure that’s associated with making sure and kind of verifying that certain practices are used. So I think it can be really confusing for some consumers when they’re looking at trying to figure out, well, what do I buy? This one says shade coffee but this one’s certified shade coffee. Is this one better than the other? And shade coffee, we have to remember, is really a gradient of systems. You could have it where it’s a crop of coffee with just a relatively few trees, or it can be forest-like. And so what certifications do is they let the consumer know much more about the specific practices used to grow that coffee they’ve purchased.
And so it can be helpful. But it’s not the only way that we can be supporting shade coffee. I’m a big proponent of don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Anything we can do to move away from just the commodity market and show that we care about the practices that are being used in growing coffee is a step in the right direction.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, I think that that’s the perfect segue into learning a little bit more about the different certifications. And we’re getting some questions about is it safe to assume that organic coffee is shade grown? Or what about Fair Trade coffee versus shade grown? So Ruth, would you mind speaking to some of these different labels? And how do we do the best that we can?
[Ruth Bennett] Sure. So currently, the only certification on the market that guarantees 100% of your coffee comes from farms that provide high quality habitat for migratory birds is the bird-friendly coffee certification. So that’s the best thing possible to look for. If you can find bird-friendly coffee, which I know it’s being dropped in the chat here– you can purchase it online on the Smithsonian website. You can also check if there are retailers near you that sell it. It’s sold at almost all Whole Foods and many specialty roasters, specialty coffee shops. That’s the best thing you can do.
The second best thing you can do is look for other certifications. So Amanda mentioned organic. Not all organic coffee is grown in forest-like conditions, but almost all of it is grown with some shade. It’s very difficult to grow coffee organically in a full-sun monoculture. So if you purchase organic coffee, you are sure that there are no harmful pesticides being applied that damage the insect population that birds rely on, and you’re almost guaranteed that some shade is associated with that farm.
Then there’s other certifications as well, like Rainforest Alliance, which some of the farms in their supply have forest-like conditions. Others are in the process of transitioning towards that. And others are just planting a shade tree or two. So you’re still by purchasing Rainforest Alliance coffee showing that there is consumer demand for sustainability, for biodiversity friendly practices, even if you’re not guaranteed that all of that coffee comes from these bird-friendly farms.
Fair Trade I think is great as well. It doesn’t have the same environmental mandate as bird-friendly coffee and organic, but it does guarantee that that coffee communities are receiving fair prices for their coffee and that they’re investing those profits in community infrastructure and education. So if you care about supporting coffee communities, looking for a Fair Trade label is a good way to go. So I think no matter what you do, finding the way that you can support coffee, if it’s buying bird-friendly coffee or just purchasing that organic coffee at your grocery store, all of those decisions go to collectively support bird habitat in coffee landscapes.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s really nice to hear. I know we’re hearing from quite a few people in the chat and the Q&A saying I can’t find the certified bird-friendly coffee in my local grocery store. Do you have any suggestions for how people might sort of support that work or push their local grocery store or local coffee shop?
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, absolutely. We need bird-friendly coffee fans. We need bird-friendly coffee advocates that are actively telling their grocery stores and their local roasters that they care about the bird-friendly coffee certification and they want to see it. So our program floods the emails of grocery stores and coffee roasters asking them to become bird-friendly certified. If these small businesses often don’t see a demand from that from their consumers, it may not be worth their while to invest in the certification and find these bird-friendly coffee farms. But if they know consistently that people are coming and asking for this and are willing to pay a little bit more for it to guarantee their coffee comes from these highly biodiverse, bird-friendly farms, then that’s the reason grocery stores and roasters often will make the switch. So as consumers, you have a lot of power to help shift the coffee market to a market that supports keeping trees on these landscapes.
[Amanda Rodewald] And also even making your preferences known, even if you have a certain company that’s producing coffee that you really, really want to start pushing more into environmentally friendly or bird-friendly practices, letting them know. Because there’s been some research that shows that it’s not always just farmers choosing or opting to move into different shade markets or certifications. Sometimes it’s because the owner of a company that’s buying the beans says you know what? We’re only going to source from farms that are growing in shade now. So it can really happen from both directions.
[Lisa Kopp] We have an interesting question in the chat, which is are any of the major coffee chains looking into this? The Starbucks or Peet’s or Dunkin’ Donuts, the big, big places that you run into on every corner in big cities?
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, for big chains, Peet’s Coffee and Tea actually does have a bird-friendly coffee line. It’s the Yosemite Dos Sierras coffee. So that’s sold in many grocery stores around the country. If you find that, it is a bird-friendly certified coffee. And then both Lab of Ornithology and the Migratory Bird Center are currently working with Nespresso, which sells espresso pods, very high quality coffee but in a capsule type system, to help them shift their internal sustainability standard to something that’s more closely aligned with bird-friendly standards. So that’s not certified bird-friendly, but it is an industry movement that we’re trying to support to make that entire supply chain more bird friendly.
Oh, and you can also– if you shop at Whole Foods, the Allegro coffee line, so that’s the Whole Foods internal brand, they have two different varieties that are bird-friendly certified– Morning Blend and you can just look for the bird-friendly logo, so it should say “Smithsonian bird-friendly certified.” If you see that logo on the coffee, it means it is certified, guaranteed 100% bird-friendly.
[Amanda Rodewald] I know you had mentioned before, so on Smithsonian’s website, do you guys– you guys have a locator, right? Is that true for where to find bird-friendly coffee?
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, we have a Where to Find portal. So two different sides to it. One is you can type in your zip code, and all of the stores that sell bird-friendly coffee around you should pop up. Parts of the United States, though, don’t have great coverage, so parts of the Midwest are very underrepresented and parts of the South. But anyone in the US and Canada can go to our online portal, and you can see all of the roasters in the US and Canada that sell bird-friendly coffee. And there are links to buy online coffee from all of them.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so helpful. I hope lots of people are checking that out, and we’ll put that in the chat again and we will also include that in the follow up email so you can forward it to all of your friends and family so they can get on board, too. So we have some really interesting questions in the chat that might take us back a little bit where we were earlier on, but there’s some questions here about just the science of growing coffee. So Amanda, I know you’ve spent lots of time on these coffee farms. Is there a country that you’re going to specifically? There’s a couple of questions of where is it– we’re talking about Central America, broadly speaking, but are there countries specifically that these are more common in? Or are there places where shade grown coffee grows particularly well because of soil? There’s some sort of interesting questions about how coffee is chosen as the main crop in these areas.
[Amanda Rodewald] Sure. Yeah, and so my work has really occurred in Central and South America. And so in the coffee growing regions there, you tend to find kind of mid-elevations is where they’re growing best– maybe 1,000 to 2,000 meters often– so 3,000 to 6,000 feet elevation is a common place. In terms of, though– There can be regional differences. So just as in anywhere, there are some areas that are more cloudy and rainy and other areas that are drier and warmer. You tend to see different practices being favored.
So in Columbia, for example, in the areas, the regions that are really warm, that are drier, there’s just more natural adoption of shade coffee practices in those areas because the coffee does better. In areas that tend to be really cloudy or much more rainy, it could be more difficult for farmers to use heavy amounts of shade in those systems because you need enough sun to make it into those lands. And so those differences in climate can actually affect, local growing climates can affect where farmers are shifting to.
There also have been political government pressures that have, in some regions or in some countries, really pushed farmers to convert from shade to sun, because back a few decades ago, it was thought that that would be actually an improvement and really help sustain these rural communities. Shift them to these intensive agricultural systems. And now we’re seeing governments are starting to switch, and there are a number of really organized initiatives that are trying to get trees back on the landscape because there are big concerns that the areas that are suitable for growing coffee are shrinking enormously as the climate is warming and drying.
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, and I can follow up on that a little bit. So my research also is primarily in Central and South America, but we do have bird-friendly certified coffees from Tanzania and Ethiopia and India and the Philippines. And we’re currently working with a big initiative in Indonesia where a lot of coffee production is shifting, too. So coffee is grown globally, and there’s obviously massive differences in climate, soils, bird communities in all of these different regions. So there is no one size fits all approach. We do have the bird-friendly standard, which we know is better for birds than monoculture. It’s the best thing on the market for birds. But there are a lot of different approaches that are needed to help farmers in their specific context find the ways that they can best conserve birds.
So Amanda mentioned these high elevation, very humid cloud forests in Central and South America. It’s very difficult to grow coffee in those conditions under shade, so we’re currently expanding or considering expanding our certification to certify farms that retain 50% of their farm in forest and 50% in low shade coffee. So it’s a way to make our certification more accessible to farmers that do have those constraints. We know that forest conservation is the most bird-friendly action we can take. It’s better for forest birds, it’s better for endemic birds than shade grown coffee, so we would like to actively support that as well.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s really great to hear, that there is, and you mentioned this earlier, that there’s sort of this sliding scale, but that it’s also a balance of what’s good for the birds and the farmers. It’s not this trade off of conservation at the cost of the human lives and the people that live in those regions.
We have a really technical question, Ruth, that you might know the answer to, but there are quite a few people who are asking about getting green beans, that if they want to roast on their own, is there a place on your website or a recommendation for how people might be able to find their own bird-friendly unroasted beans?
[Ruth Bennett] Absolutely. So we also have a section on our website that says importers. So if you go to our Where to Buy page, it’s got four different sections. There’s where to find by me, where to buy online, and then there’s the importer section. So importers are the companies that purchase green beans from Central and South America or Africa or India, bring them to the United States, and they operate primarily on request from buyers. So if you are a coffee company that’s interested in purchasing your own green beans that are bird-friendly certified, we have a list of importers that we know deal bird-friendly certified green beans, so you can feel free to reach out to any of them. And then some of the coffee companies that sell bird-friendly certified roasts may also sell you green beans, if that’s something you’re interested in, if you just want very small quantities. But you’d have to reach out to them directly. Those would be direct negotiations.
[Lisa Kopp] There’s an interesting question that someone brought up in the Q&A talking about a book called Nature’s Best Hope, and said that in some shade grown coffee farms there are non-native trees being planted. So I’m wondering if there is any sort of oversight or sort of assistance in helping to make sure that what is being planted for the coffee farms is also right for that specific ecosystem.
[Amanda Rodewald] Yeah, and it’s true. And so Doug and also working with some of his grad students have published a paper recently, too, looking at different species of trees and which are most valuable for birds in terms of foraging. And so it’s true, right? I mean, we want to have, of course, native plants, I mean, really as part of any conservation or restoration project we’re doing. That’s an ideal component. And a lot of the standards with these certifications do emphasize native species.
Just one caveat or maybe something to consider, again, that it’s, we have to think about things also realistically and sort of practically for farmers. And so sometimes when we’re thinking about those alternate income streams or providing other food and products for families, it might be that sometimes other cultivated trees in the overstory are providing resources that actually make it possible for the farmer to be growing in shade. So having a combination of some native and some, let’s say, non-invasive non-natives, sometimes isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it opens up the possibility of a farmer to actually make a living.
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, and the bird-friendly coffee certification currently requires that 60% of the tree species on the farm are native. Obviously, we would prefer for the entire farm to be native, but often farmers are growing citrus, which if you’re in the Americas, that’s not native. There’s a lot of fruit trees that are introduced into these plantations because they really are multi-use farming systems that have a lot of different things that farmers are planting and growing. But we do require the majority of the trees, and we require that there are at least 10 different species of trees on the farm, the majority of those need to be native.
And as Amanda mentioned, we’re doing work directly with Doug Tallamy to figure out which native tree species are the ones that provide the greatest resources for birds. So one of our goals for the future is to be able to provide recommendations to farmers that want to engineer their farms to be more bird friendly and in very specific ways. So just adding additional tree species may not greatly increase the food availability for birds. There are many native species and non-native species that don’t have a lot of associated insects or that don’t produce a lot of high calorie value fruits. So we’re trying to figure out which of the native trees are the ones that really drive the food web and availability of resources for birds.
So we have research going on right now in Colombia and Peru to further investigate that question. And we’re really excited with the results that we’re getting so far. It looks like about 25% of the native tree species have disproportionate value for those birds. So we’re going to be able to create tree catalogs for farmers that show which trees are really the ones, if they want to engineer their farm for biodiversity, are the ones that they should be planting.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow, that is so fascinating. It’s sort of related, somebody asked the question do the birds ever eat the coffee? Is it ever an issue where they run out of other things and then they’re going for the coffee beans?
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, there’s very few bird species that actually eat the coffee. So it does have high caffeine value, which is toxic for many species. But I have seen some endemic tanagers in Central America actually in the coffee plants eating those berries when they’re super ripe, but the loss from wildlife of the coffee beans themselves is very low, especially compared to some other crops. So cocoa, the crop that makes chocolate, there is much greater damage that can be caused to those by birds, especially some woodpeckers species. But for coffee, birds are primarily providing a service rather than damaging it.
[Amanda Rodewald] And that’s been confirmed, too, in these studies that have done experimental exposures, where they’re actually able to test that and demonstrate. Birds have full access. That would include insect eating birds and fruit eating birds, versus where they don’t have access. And so the birds, their presence is associated with greater yields.
[Lisa Kopp] So Ruth, you just mentioned chocolate, cocoa. So I’m curious if there are other products that either the Smithsonian or other groups are working to create bird-friendly certifications for.
[Ruth Bennett] Yes, absolutely. So my first year as a postdoc at the Smithsonian, I focused on figuring out whether our bird-friendly coffee standard also applies to cocoa growing farms. So those are cocoa, cacao, is the product that creates chocolate. And we found that the majority of our bird-friendly coffee criteria also predict bird diversity in these cocoa farms. So we developed a bird-friendly cocoa standard, which we are currently piloting in the Dominican Republic. It’s a really exciting new initiative. For 20 years, Smithsonian has only focused on coffee and we’re finally expanding to include other crops.
So cocoa, just like coffee, is a native understory tree, evolved in the Americas, and can be grown in these forest-like conditions. So just like with coffee, the diversity of trees that are associated with it, the height, the canopy cover, all of those things create better conditions for birds. So we expect to have a bird-friendly chocolate product on the market in the next couple of months. So as soon as it’s available, you will also be able to find that on our Where to Buy portal. And I do want to– Oh, go ahead, Amanda.
[Amanda Rodewald] Oh yes, sorry. I was just going to mention, too, that we’re starting to see even in temperate areas more bird-friendly products that are popping up as well. So just as one example, Audubon has an Audubon and a bird-friendly ranching program where then bees can be certified as coming from bird-friendly farms. So Ruth and her colleagues have been leading this sort of multi-organization, big group, a coalition of different conservation organizations and agencies and companies that are interested in expanding the portfolio of bird-friendly products that are available to consumers. So it’s an exciting time and probably a lot of big changes that will be coming over the next few years.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great.
[Ruth Bennett] Yeah, absolutely. One of our goals with that is to have a single logo, where you as people interested in birds and wildlife conservation can look for products across all product spaces that are better for birds, that are actively conserving habitat for native birds. So Audubon bird-friendly certified beef is one of those. Vermont bird-friendly certified maple syrup is another. But we envision a world in which we have bird-friendly rice, bird-friendly corn– multiple commodities– bird-friendly logos on products throughout your supermarkets. So that’s what we’re actively trying to create.
[Lisa Kopp] That is really exciting to think about and gives so much hope for people who go through the grocery store trying to make decisions and just sort of are flying blind sometimes. You’re trying to buy local or organic or fair trade and understanding all of these things and how they work together and that there really is a lot of shared purpose behind them and that there could be even more products that contain that kind of information would just be wonderful to go to the grocery store.
We have one minute left, which is unbelievable. So before I start sort of closing announcements, is there anything that either of you want to share? Anything that you feel like we missed, or you want to reiterate? This has just been so fascinating.
[Amanda Rodewald] Yeah but just, I mean, thanks to everyone for tuning in. And I guess one of the big take home messages always for me is just coffee is such a great reminder that when we think about conservation and when we think about sustainability, it’s not always an either or where we have to choose what people need versus what the environment or what birds need, that there are actually creative approaches and that we can really meet social and ecological needs. And so I think that, as a global community trying to rise to the challenge of growing populations, more limited resources, changing climate, we’re going to find that there are more and more creative approaches that are available to us all where we can actually have a positive impact for the planet and for people alike.
[Amanda Rodewald] Yeah, and I’ll just really quickly add, we really hope all of you tuning in join us in this effort to create a market and create demand for bird-friendly practices. So if you’re a coffee drinker, please purchase bird-friendly coffee. Ask for it, if it’s not available where you shop for coffee. And if you don’t drink coffee, please consider telling the bird-friendly story. Your voice, your ability to share this message with your neighbors, people in your circle, so that they are aware of bird-friendly coffees, so that they’re aware that their coffee consumption could actually be benefiting birds rather than taking habitat away from them, that’s a powerful story to share and helps us all create better incentives for farmers to keep this habitat. So thank you all.
[Lisa Kopp] Yes, so thank you, Ruth and Amanda, for such a fascinating conversation, so many really helpful next steps. It’s really nice to feel like there’s some research we can all go do and some changes we can make in our day to day life to have an impact. And thank you all for the really wonderful questions and engaging chat. Thanks for signing up for this webinar, and we will be emailing you the link so you’ll be able to watch this again. Pass it along to people. And the email will also include the links that we’ve shared in the chat. So you’ll have the portal, the Smithsonian portal, and many of the other links that we’ve shared.
And as I mentioned, this webinar is part of a series. So we’ve been spotlighting programs and research around the Cornell Lab that are important within the birding community, trying to help you learn more about not just your backyard birds or gardening but about issues facing birds worldwide, such as the coffee story today. So if you enjoyed today’s program, please consider becoming a member. Otherwise, we hope to see you at our next virtual program. And thank you all again so much for joining. Have a great day everyone. Bye.End of transcript
This webinar began with a video about the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly® coffee certification program which can be seen below.
Did you know that many of the brilliant birds flitting across North American backyards are coffee connoisseurs—and you can help them out with your own coffee choices? Many migrant songbirds spend winters on farms where coffee grows under tall trees. In addition to offering critical habitat, shade-grown coffee farms help local economies, too. Join the Cornell Lab’s Amanda Rodewald and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Ruth Bennett as they discuss coffee, birds, and conservation efforts. We’ll also spend time answering your coffee questions during the live Q&A.
- Learn about the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly coffee certification with this video.
- Find out where to buy bird friendly coffee.
- Watch Amanda explain how shade-grown coffee helps birds, ecosystems, and communities.
- Read about how shade-grown coffee enriched the lives of a Costa Rican farming family.