bird friendly coffee

Birds from the Coffee Region

Many of us enjoy both delicious coffee and the fascinating birds that hail from coffee growing regions: how do these two seemingly disparate subjects relate to our daily lives?

Coffee Botany

Coffee shrubs are beautiful, lush shrubs, 6-15’ tall and wide with many stems and glossy oval leaves with long ‘drip tips’ – a common feature in rainforest plants that help shed water. I have a potted, indoor coffee plant and many of my friends have raised them, but they are notoriously finicky to care for and especially prone to indoor plant pests. That coffee plant is the thirstiest of my house plants, wilting quickly when drying out: at least it is good at communicating! That thirstiness makes sense as coffee is naturally an understory plant, originating in the lush damp shade of African tropical rainforests.

After 5 years, my coffee plant blossomed this spring, and I was reminded of it’s very sweet smelling (like jasmine!), small white tubular flowers. Now, I’m looking forward to the tasty fruit, which is confusingly called a ‘cherry’ and turns deep maroon-red when ripe and is soft-fleshy (slimy?) sweet (like hibiscus) and full of antioxidants. In the center of the red fruit, there will be a pair of seeds…called coffee ‘beans’ – another misnomer associated with this plant as the plant isn’t related to cherries or beans! Whenever I encounter a small red fleshy fruit, I’ve been trained to suspect the plant co-evolved with birds for seed dispersal. Even when coffee is grown far from its African origins, there are birds that devour the fruit, but cultivated coffee has a more important relationship with tropical birds.

Coffee Farms and Birds

Coffee is a lucrative tropical farming product and is cultivated on 27 million acres. Tropical regions are the most biologically diverse areas of the planet with many species still being discovered. Conversion of tropical rainforest to agriculture is occurring rapidly, threatening that biodiversity. Soybeans and palm oil are two crops that are expanding rapidly, but coffee is much more lucrative per acre. And coffee can be grown more in harmony with tropical biodiversity, but only if it is ‘shade grown.’

Shade Grown Coffee

As reviewed by independent, peer reviewed, published science, the only credible shade grown certification is from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, carrying the logo inserted here.

The standards for this certification include maintaining real shade provided by diverse overstory trees as well as organic practices (certified by another agency)…and diverse other plant life, maintenance of natural mulch, and protection/buffering of waterways.

These standards have been shown to support native bird life as well as providing habitat for many other native species, including mammals.

The Effects of the Central Coast’s Coffee Shed

Here on California’s central coast, we are lucky to have both coffee AND birds that hail from coffee growing regions. Judging from the aroma of roasting coffee, the many businesses supported by serving coffee, and the plethora of local coffee labels, our region greatly appreciates this caffeinated beverage. I am curious about how many acres of coffee farms are needed to support Santa Cruz County’s coffee-drinking habits – anyone know? We can call that our ‘coffee-shed.’ If we support a coffee shed that nurtures the birds that come visit us in the summers, we can look into those birds’ sparkling eyes through the steam of a latte and be proud of those connections…

Beautiful Migratory Songbirds

There are many migratory bird species that come to California’s central coast for the summer to nest, raise young and store up enough reserves to return south before our winter gets too harsh. I’ve been enjoying steaming cups of shade grown coffee while watching two beautiful tropical migratory songbirds this summer. The startling colored thick-billed black headed grosbeak is fledging young right now on the Central Coast. Check out this photo from a Flickr site by Kersti Niebelsek; maybe this striking image will inspire you to purchase certified shade-grown coffee and grab some binoculars to see the bird in the wild.

The other striking species that lights up my mornings and gets me pouring boiling water to drip through freshly ground, certified shade grown coffee is the lazuli bunting. Be similarly inspired by another extraordinary photo, this time by Flickr user Julio Mulero who captured this pretty bird at Ed Levine Park in Milpitas.

Both that grosbeak and the bunting may have traveled from the coffee growing region of southern Mexico, where they spent last winter. Other species come from coffee growing areas even farther away, including: ash-throated flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler and yellow warbler. That last deserves a photo, as well. That photo is compliments of Flickr user Kelly Colgan Azar.

Finding and Procuring Certified Shade Grown Coffee

Surprisingly, it is Very Difficult to find certified shade grown coffee in our area. You can always search the internet and have it delivered! Last I checked Whole Foods had one of its wall of coffees that was certified shade grown. Not so for any of our other local grocery stores! You can find all sorts of supposedly “bird friendly” or “shade grown” coffees, but only those with the certification shown above are verifiable. Because shade-grown coffee produces less per acre, you are going to pay more for it. Think of those extra dollars going to the trust funds for these beautiful birds.

This post originally published as part of my series with Bruce Bratton at BrattonOnline.com Thanks, Bruce, for keeping Santa Cruz actively informed!