American Redstart. Tom Warren/Audubon Photography Awards

Many of our gorgeous woodland birds migrate south to spend the winter in tropical forests. The Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Wood Thrush and American Redstart return to their favorite wintering grounds in Central and South America to feast among the lush vegetation of the forest understory and canopy. What do they find upon their arrival?

 It is estimated that Americans drink about 300 million cups of coffee a day. As demand for this morning kick-start grows, demand for coffee farmlands in Central and South America continues to grow as well. What does this have to do with our beloved woodland birds? Read on.

Thirty years ago, farmers across the world cultivated arabica coffee beans (Coffea arabica), an Ethiopian species that loves shade. Grown under a canopy of forest trees, arabica coffee, known as shade-grown coffee, is farmed in harmony with the natural landscape. Though a shade-grown coffee farm is disturbed land managed by humans, its practice of planting the coffee plants under the native tropical forest trees ensures that leaf litter continues to enrich the soil and that a variety of tree species provides birds with a rich array of insects, fruits and nectar. And the forest holds onto the soil, preventing erosion on mountainous slopes.

Today, higher yields are required to meet the demands of our caffeine-dependent, latte-sipping society. Intensive coffee farming now requires that the lush tropical forests be clear-cut to grow miles and miles of sun-tolerant coffee varieties. This monoculture (single species) crop requires huge amounts of chemical fertilizers to feed the barren soil, as well as toxic pesticides to control insects. With the trees gone, soil erosion is prevalent and a dry season may require the replacement of much of the coffee crop. Needless to say, this type of cropland offers nothing to birds or other wildlife. In fact, studies in Mexico and Colombia show that sun- grown coffee plantations harbor almost 97 percent fewer bird species than shade- grown coffee farms.

Thankfully, shade-grown coffee farms still exist, as independent farmers, determined to produce a sustainable product on healthy lands, continue to protect vital habitat for our migratory birds. It is up to us to support their efforts by purchasing their products and forgoing coffee that is grown on clear-cut forestland. Request that your local coffee shop, specialty or grocery store carry shade-grown coffee certified by the Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly programs. These programs ensure that the coffee is shade-grown (Rainforest Alliance also requires fair wages for workers and soil conservation practices, while Bird Friendly standards require crops to be organically grown).  Our actions today will determine whether our beautiful migratory birds find a place to stay next winter and every winter thereafter.

Cindi Kobak