Audubon North Carolina has 10 amazing chapters across the state who help put a local focus on bird preservation and conservation issues. In this special blog series, we’ll focus on a chapter each month to learn more about their history, what they are working on, and to increase the statewide understanding of special ecosystems and habitats. Each month will include a series of posts about each chapter including a post from our biologists that will share a unique research project that is happening in the chapter’s geographic footprint.
This month, we get to know the Mecklenburg Audubon Society Meckbirds.org. Read on to learn more about our chapter serving the greater Charlotte area and their work to raise awareness for bird-friendly coffee production.
By Phil & Jan Fowler
While listening to the morning music of a songbird enjoying the comforts of your bird-friendly backyard, you may not know that the coffee you’re sipping could make all the difference for your birds farther south! The coffee beans you’ve purchased are most likely originating from Central and South America where your songbirds have gone to winter. But what you may not know is that nearly all of these migrating songbirds are negatively affected by a form of coffee production known as sun coffee.
In her article The True Cost of Coffee, Supervisor of Avian Research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory of the University of Michigan Julie Craves writes, “I cannot state it any plainer than this: If you are buying inexpensive grocery store or fast-food coffee, you are contributing to the destruction of bird habitat and the decline of migratory songbirds. It is one of the worst things you can do for the environment on a daily basis – and one of the easiest things for you to change.”
Most commercial coffees available today are known as sun coffees, developed for high yields at a low production cost, with no consideration of ecological impact. They are grown on large farms in full sun on land that has been cleared of native vegetation, heavily fertilized and subjected to pesticides and herbicides.
The majority of North Carolinians drink sun coffee every day as a morning kick-start without realizing the larger impact. Here is a short, non-comprehensive list of a few name brand sun coffees:
- Taster’s Choice
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- Maxwell House
- Chock full o’Nuts
- Chase & Sanborn
All such sun coffee farms are nearly devoid of animal life, especially birds. By contrast, as noted author Scott Weidensaul, found in his surveys, Bird-Friendly coffee farms (shade grown using organic practices) are biologically diverse and “dripping” with songbirds. If you are a coffee drinker, and care about the welfare of our songbirds, you may consider drinking Bird-Friendly coffee.
By now you want to be part of the solution, but how do you know the difference in sun and shade grown coffee? Many brands will be labeled shade grown, which sounds great, but there is no agreed-upon definition for this. Shade grown can mean anything from the rustic method of planting coffee in existing forests of native trees to growing coffee in a large, cleared field “shaded” by a few non-native eucalyptus trees.
The most reliable way to purchase coffee that supports birds is to look for a special certification:
This is the only true “shade grown” certification. This certification was developed by ecologists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and has the strictest habitat requirements of any coffee certification. Bird-Friendly coffee not only has to be shade grown using rustic practices, it has to be organic. Only coffee certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center can be called Bird-Friendly.
By purchasing Bird-Friendly certified coffee, you are making a difference for birds in need. Dozens of migratory songbird species take refuge in heavily shaded coffee farms, including species that have declined steeply over the past decades such as Baltimore Oriole, Canada Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Wood Thrush and Olive-sided Flycatcher.
To be certified organic in the United States, coffee must be produced under standards established by the Department of Agriculture, even if it is grown in another country.
The Rainforest Alliance is a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, and its certification program covers many crops including coffee. Neither shade management nor organic farming is required. It is not as strict as Bird-Friendly, but helpful in areas where lots of shade is not possible and for those farms that can’t meet all of the organic requirements.
This certification is primarily concerned with lessening poverty among coffee farmers and improving their overall standard of living. While this is certainly a worthwhile cause, it also does not address how the coffee is grown and does not support the health of bird habitat.
Choosing a coffee based on any of these certifications makes it a worthwhile choice compared to mass-produced sun coffee. However, the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification is the only one that guarantees sustainably grown coffee and improved bird habitat.
The bottom line on Bird-Friendly coffee is that it tastes better, it’s better for you and the environment, and should be the only choice for coffee drinkers serious about conservation and increasing migratory bird populations.
Mecklenburg Audubon Society believes in the conservation of the wintering grounds of our songbirds and offers Bird-Friendly Birds & Beans coffee for sale. Birds & Beans is the only company that sells exclusively Bird-Friendly coffee. Also, 20% of Birds & Beans profits go to their conservation partners’ sanctuaries and preserves. Proceeds from sales of Bird-Friendly coffee through Mecklenburg Audubon Society will be directed to land purchases and support of coffee farmers who have certified as Bird-Friendly in South and Central America.
Please go to www.meckbirds.org for ordering information. If you are outside of Mecklenburg Audubon's chapter area, please consider purchasing Birds & Beans through the website. We hope you will help birds by giving it a try. See how tasty and easy conservation-minded coffee can be!
For more information about certified Bird-Friendly coffee, go to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to learn more.