Has Your Coffee Killed a Songbird?

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Ron Mumme
The author with a hooded warbler at a study site in Pennsylvania, in the Northeast United States.

It is the first day of February and a major snowstorm is bearing down on the Great Lakes region with the overnight low forecasted to be a bone-chilling 0°F. I am Canadian to the core, but by this stage of winter I long for the sight of my first red-winged blackbird and tree swallow in March, as they return from the southern United States. A month later, these first migrants will be followed by a wave of warblers, tanagers, orioles, grosbeaks, and thrushes that spent their winter in Central and South America. These long distance migrants will fill our neighborhoods, fields, and forests with vibrant color and song as they set up territories, and fulfil the purpose of their odyssey and breed.

For now, I am sitting at my kitchen table in Toronto, well-slippered, fleeced, and sipping a cup of Bird Friendly® certified shade coffee, the floral aroma of which conjures up thoughts of what “my” birds are doing at this very moment. I can imagine a camouflaged wood thrush hopping under a strangler fig tree and flipping over leaves in search of food, a flock of Tennessee warblers delicately sipping nectar from Inga tree flowers, a summer tanager skulking in the forest canopy and suddenly barking out its sharp “ki-ti-kuk” call.

The Bird Friendly® shade coffee farms where my coffee was grown are two thousand miles away, in Nicaragua. Unlike conventional sun coffee plantations, these Bird Friendly® farms provide forest-like habitat, with no pesticides, and a safe and much-needed home for many of North America’s migratory songbirds. Every morning, my cup of coffee, along with every sustainably sourced brew, is helping our songbirds to come home.

The tide of birds that sweeps over North America each spring, and recedes each fall, has been captured at a continental level by eBird sightings reported to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.1 These graphics leave the impression of overwhelming abundance, but the harsh reality is that dozens of species of migratory songbirds have been in a steep decline in recent decades. Many of our migratory songbirds are steadily dwindling in numbers, including the wood thrush. This iconic forest bird has lost half of its North American population since annual Breeding Bird Survey counts began 50 years ago. Wood thrushes are best known for their flute-like song which is bold, beautiful, and full of life. For many people, the refreshing and ringing dusk chorus of “ee-oh-lay,” from thrushes in the forest near their house, is now only a distant memory.

There are many factors that have contributed to the wood thrush’s decline, but two major factors are pesticides and tropical deforestation. Shade coffee offers an encouraging solution because high quality coffee can be grown in a sustainable agro-forestry system that is good for farmers, birds, and biodiversity of all manners. The lights are going out for songbirds like the wood thrush, but we can all play a role in reversing its decline.

Since the 1980s, I have studied migratory songbirds to understand their surprisingly complex mating behavior, to map their incredible migration journeys, and to help halt the alarming declines in so many species. My students at York University, in Toronto, and I have started studying the wood thrush because it has become an ambassador for forest bird declines, and is the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine.’ We have tracked their year-round migration and studied their abundance and health in a variety of forest types in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Belize.

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Bill Lynch
A wood thrush in Helyar Woods, New Jersey in the Northeast United States.

Like all our Neotropical migrants, the wood thrush leads a double life, spending over half of the year in tropical countries. Wood thrushes can be difficult to see in their tropical homes owing to their earth tones and shy nature, but their rapid-fire calls quickly reveal the character in the shadows. Although the wintering range of this species is well known, and stretches from southern Mexico to Panama, until recently it was impossible to track individual songbirds to map the core wintering areas and find out what threats the birds face while there.

My students and I used newly miniaturized tracking devices called ‘geolocators’ which weigh less than a US dime, so that the birds can carry them as little backpacks. The geolocator measures light levels every few minutes, and the resulting sunrise and sunset times can be converted into approximate latitude and longitude. The hard part is that we must retrieve the geolocator after the bird’s round-trip migration to download the archived data.

The first step is to catch a wood thrush using a long, rectangular, and loosely strung ‘mist net’ that is held upright by poles at either end. In a shady forest, the net is hard to see and birds fly into it by mistake. We band and weigh each bird, take a tiny blood sample, and then attach a harness around the bird’s hips so that the geolocator sits comfortably on the lower back. A month or more later, the bird disappears on migration to parts unknown. If we are lucky, it returns after migration to almost the same spot where we first tagged it. The bird has to be lucky, too to survive the 7,500 km (approximately 4,500 mile) round trip, which usually includes a non-stop flight over the Gulf of Mexico in the spring. Only a third of the birds make it and return to breed, whether or not they were wearing geolocators.

In May 2008, my graduate students caught the very first wood thrush to be tracked for its entire migration. We discovered that this male, along with four other wood thrushes that had bred in the same forest in northwestern Pennsylvania, all spent their winter in eastern Honduras and Nicaragua. This was not just a coincidence. We have now tracked dozens of wood thrushes that bred in the central-east or north-east part of the US breeding range, and the vast majority also wintered in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, or western Costa Rica. Overall, as we report in a recent paper published in Conservation Biology, just over 50 percent of all wood thrushes in North America depend on this narrow region to survive their stay in the tropics.

This eastern part of Central America is a wood thrush haven, but it is also a global deforestation hotspot, and is losing its tropical forests at one of the highest rates in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 2011 State of the World’s Forests report, since 1990 Honduras has lost 27 percent of its forest, and Nicaragua 31 percent, to agriculture.2 It should come as no surprise, then, that wood thrushes that depend on these forests are disappearing quickly. Numerous studies on wood thrushes and other forest songbirds have shown that the extent and quality of tropical forest directly affects the health and survival of the birds that live there.

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Jefferson Schriver
The Gaia Estate, a Bird Friendly certified shade coffee farm in Nicaragua.

The scale of our assault on this endearing forest icon is enormous. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, an annual census of North America’s bird abundance, the wood thrush has been declining by 1.8 percent per year.3 This may not sound so bad, but it means that the total North American population size of wood thrushes has plummeted by about 50 percent since the 1960s, which is a loss of 12 million birds from our forests. If forest loss continues at its current pace, we can expect the population will drop by another four million birds by 2025. And, these depressing statistics are for one species alone, while many other forest species are similarly affected.

What can be done to make sure that our wood thrushes, and other forest songbirds, remain common and serenade future generations for years to come? Bird Friendly® shade coffee farms offer one win-win solution because they provide high quality forested habitat for dozens of species of migratory songbirds, as well as tropical birds that live there year round. In the village of San Juan del Río Coco, Nicaragua, for instance, a cooperative of more than 400 small coffee producers raise more than 2.5 million pounds of Bird Friendly® certified coffee every year. This one co-op adds up to approximately 8,000 acres, a green oasis that is surrounded by miles of deforested land devoted to pasture, sun coffee, and other crops. Small- and medium-size coffee farmers gain many ecological and economic benefits from keeping a multi-layered and diverse set of tree species on their farm. Recent studies have also shown that birds that depend on the trees directly benefit farmers by controlling insect pests and increasing coffee production. Saving heavily shaded coffee farms throughout this region would protect tens of thousands of acres of habitat for the wood thrush and other migratory songbirds. But, farmers need our help.

What is missing is large-scale support and commitment from the millions of coffee drinkers in America to buy Bird Friendly® certified coffee. Too many consumers are not aware of the benefits of shade coffee to birds and farmers, or do not realize how easy it is to buy Bird Friendly® shade coffee. Few people know how or where their coffee is grown, but would be alarmed if they did. Most of the coffee sold in North America today is grown in the full sun, provides no habitat for wildlife, uses heavy amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and causes extensive soil erosion in the tropical rainy season. In the last decades of the 20th century, coffee production underwent a massive commercial shift from small, family-owned and forested farms to large, industrialized, tree-less sun coffee farms.

Sun coffee is literally killing the songbirds we love—and is destroying a sustainable method of farming that supports rural communities in Latin America and keeps toxic chemicals away from farm workers and their children. Many prominent conservation organizations endorse the Smithsonian certification of Bird Friendly® coffee, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy. Nevertheless, it has been challenging to get the word out to the average coffee drinker, even those that recognize the importance of environmental protection and sustainability. The basic problem is that industrial farms can produce large quantities of bad tasting ‘robusta’ sun coffee (that some say tastes like burned tires), and consumers will unknowingly pay for this inferior product and are unaware of its environmental and social costs.

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W. Plynn
A hooded oriole migrating through the Green Valley in Arizona, en route from its wintering habitat in Central America to the Northeast United States.

The travels of the wood thrush showcase the importance of providing a strong market for Bird Friendly® certified coffee and creating a long-lasting incentive for coffee farmers to keep the farms forested. This is good for farmers and good for nature.

There are five key reasons why people who love birds, and who care about the environment, should buy and drink Smithsonian Bird Friendly® certified coffee:

  1. To save migratory birds.
  2. To preserve forest-like habitat and biodiversity in Latin America by supporting coffee production methods that have the lowest environmental impact.
  3. To protect farm workers, their children, and their neighbors from exposure to toxic chemicals.
  4. To support entire rural communities with jobs and trade via an economically viable farming model.
  5. To preserve tropical forests, their biodiversity, and their important global role as carbon sinks as a buffer against climate change.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. An astounding 330 million cups of coffee are consumed every day in North America. In the United States and Canada consumer coffee sales for 2014 were over US $55 billion, but coffee with any kind of environmental certification was only four percent of this huge market. Smithsonian Bird Friendly® coffee, which is the gold standard for sustainability (high habitat standards, organic, Fair Trade), is less than 0.5 percent of the North American coffee market, but even so, is helping to protect 30,000 acres of forest-like habitat in Central America. Roughly 40 percent of coffee lands in Central America would qualify for Bird Friendly® certification. With more awareness and engagement, coffee drinkers could do much to help these coffee farmers and our birds who visit them each year. Increasing the portion of Bird Friendly® coffee, even to just two percent of the market, would protect another 360,000 acres of forested farms. Smithsonian Bird Friendly® certified coffee offers consumers a chance to harness this economic potential and to take a step toward a more sustainable world.