A Cup for Birders: The Magic Taste of Sustainability


By Sarah Levy, Public Affairs Officer for the Columbia Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Aribica plant.
Aribica plant. Graphic by Sarah Levy/USFWS. Original photo used under Creative Commons License.

Coffee. America’s cup of ambition.

According to a 2018 study by Reuters, 64% of Americans drink a cup of coffee every day. That’s nearly 210 million people.

But how many people know where their coffee comes from, or how it’s made? I drink coffee, and I had to admit to myself that I had never thought about how it got from an Arabica plant on a different continent all the way into the bag that I buy at the store.

I was thinking about this one morning as I held a steaming mug of coffee and watched a dark-eyed Junco flit about backyard. I wondered if the coffee I was drinking came from a coffee farm that supported the dark-eyed Junco’s migrating buddies who travel between Latin America and the Pacific Northwest. What kind of coffee operations are friendliest to birds? And most importantly: is there a distinctive, je ne sais quoi flavor to bird-friendly coffee?

I decided to find out.

Shade-grown aribica plant.
Shade-grown aribica plant. Graphic by Sarah Levy/USFWS. Original photo used under Creative Commons License.

The first step I took was to research the different certifications we see on commercial coffee. There’s Fair Trade Coffee, Non-GMO certified coffee, and at least two environmentally friendly certifications. I decided to focus on one aspect of coffee production that seemed certain to make a difference for both plant and animal health all over the world: shade-grown coffee.

Shade-grown coffee is exactly what it sounds like: coffee plants grown beneath a canopy of trees. It stands in contrast to sun-grown coffee, which is often grown where trees have been cleared for the coffee crop. Shade-grown coffee plantations provide substantial ecological benefits for birds and other critters compared to sun-grown coffee plantations.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, having shade trees creates a more diverse wildlife community than does a monocrop coffee plantation. If the goal is to maintain biodiversity, then shade-grown coffee farms are better. The bulk of the world’s coffee is grown in the tropics, where forest loss has damaged ecosystems and reduced the extraordinary biodiversity levels. Many of the birds that breed in Pacific Northwest forests spend winters in those tropical forests so the loss of habitat there harms species in our backyard.

For example, Western Tanagers actually forage in shade-grown coffee plantations. These beautifully colored orange, yellow, and black birds breed as far north as Canada’s Northwest Territories and range as far south as southern Chile. Western Tanagers benefit from coffee bushes and the canopy of trees above.

In addition to minimizing forest and biodiversity loss, shade-grown coffee plantations impact birds in other ways; the trees above the coffee plants provide benefits such as fruit. Epiphyte plants — ferns, orchids, and bromeliads — are especially important hosts for insects (bird food) and suppliers of nesting material for birds.

Picking coffee.
Picking coffee. Graphic by Sarah Levy/USFWS. Original photo used under Creative Commons License.

The canopy trees of a forested coffee plantation can also provide non-bird-related benefits. The carbon stored in the trunks, branches, and roots creates a carbon sink, which means it withholds carbon from the atmosphere, and serves as mitigation against climate change. Healthier ecosystems may allow farmers to use less pesticides to manage pests. Finally, a more natural ecosystem leads to fewer landslides, more understory growth, and a more diverse array of plants and trees that can provide for healthier soil.

Drinking bird-friendly coffee is one of the seven simple actions recommended by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Nearly three billion birds have disappeared since 1970, a staggering amount of loss in a short period of time. Drinking shade-grown coffee is one of the ways to reduce bird loss.

I found two certifications that seemed to ensure a coffee plantation met shade-grown standards: the Rainforest Alliance Certification and Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly Certification. While the Rainforest Alliance certification is most common, there are a number of Pacific Northwest coffee companies which meet and advertise the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly Certification. You can also buy sustainable coffee through mail-order.

In addition to farming practices, there are a number of variables that affect how coffee tastes, including the type of coffee plant, region of origin, and picking and roasting method. You can buy pre-ground coffee or whole bean coffee; the type of coffee makers consumers can buy for home use can also affect coffee flavor.

To really see if bird-friendly coffee tasted differently, I decided to conduct a highly-caffeinated analysis: sampling as many different coffees as I could find.

After trying nearly a dozen types of coffees, I came to two realizations. First, I need to limit my coffee consumption to three cups a day — or so says my family. Second, I don’t have the sort of delicate palate one might need to decipher between different types of coffee. Some were dark and bitter, some lighter and sweet; others I drank so early in the morning that they just tasted hot.

But there’s one thing I can promise: bird-friendly coffee has a je ne sais quoi magic that only conservation can provide.

This experiment has convinced me to buy bird-friendly coffee at our local grocery store. It’s widely available and better for birds. If you want to buy shade-grown coffee, see what’s available locally. I bet you’ll be able to find a good option — good for the birds, great for the environment, and supreme for your taste buds.



USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.