Spending your bucks on ‘bird-friendly’ coffee

This spring, I was frequently asked, “Where are the hummingbirds?” I, too, noticed little activity at my nectar feeders. At first I thought it was just the cold spring that delayed the birds’ northbound migration. I was hopeful that they would still appear.

As spring continued, a few hummers arrived but still the numbers seemed dramatically down, so I checked the conservation status of the Rufous Hummingbird, our most common hummer. I was shocked to learn that this bird is included on the Washington Audubon list of species at risk.

This spring, I have also been researching and thinking about where I want to spend my food purchasing dollars. We are hearing a lot about eating locally. In response, my husband and I ramped up our veggie garden efforts, started a flock of egg-laying chickens and begun to ask the hard questions about sustainable food production.

If you want an extended visit with the global agribusiness that supplies almost all the food you get at the supermarket or fast food outlets, I recommend “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollen, or “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. They speak brilliantly to these issues. But what I want to share is how our food choices affect wild birds.

Let’s begin with coffee. It is something that many of us consume every single day and yet the coffee growers live thousands of miles away. Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to give up your java. If I did, I expect my husband would go screaming for the hills.

Responsible, bird-friendly coffee buying must take into consideration how and where the beans are grown. When coffee arrived in the Americas about 200 years ago, the coffee plants were scattered under eons-old tropical forests with little disturbance to the canopy. A shade-coffee forest mimics a native forest with many layers of trees and shrubs. One study in Mexico found that over 140 species of birds live in these shade-coffee farms.

Our Rufous Hummingbird is one species that spends the winter in this habitat. Others include Western Tanagers, Barn Swallows, Swainson’s Thrushes and scads of bright yellow warblers.

Around 1970, new, sun-tolerant coffee plants were developed. Some farmers were encouraged to cut down the tropical forests and grow a monoculture of these higher producing plants. With it came the need for chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, and soon the small farms were taken over by big corporations. That same Mexican study found that only five to six species of birds could survive in sun-coffee plantations.

I used to feel helpless to assist migrating birds once they left our Island and flew south to their wintering grounds. So when I discovered this relationship between my morning cup of java and many of my favorite migrating songbirds, my husband and I committed to drinking bird-friendly coffee. Now, all the coffee consumed in our home is certified organic, fair-traded, shade-grown and very delicious. We buy our coffee and decaf from Café Mam, a Mexican cooperative that markets in the United States through an Oregon roaster and distributor.

Also, Seattle Audubon offers shade coffee through their Web site,, where you can read about their bird-friendly coffee campaign.

It is a win-win solution to buy shade-grown coffee. We can drink our morning coffee and listen to our favorite songbirds in our gardens. When the Rufous Hummer stops by my nectar feeder, I know that I am helping to feed the birds while here in my garden. Next winter when I sip my shade-grown coffee, I can rest assured that I am supporting the hummers as they find food and habitat while they spend the winter down south.

If it bothers you to spend more on shade-grown bird-friendly coffee when there is a cheaper alternative, please consider this. Wild birds and nature no longer constitute a freebie, something given to us to enjoy. Habitat destruction pushes the birds away from our lives, and we must contribute something for the privilege of watching birds.

Also, “cheap coffee” has hidden costs that I would rather not pay. I just figure that the additional expense of bird-friendly coffee is a part of my financial contribution to the birds that bring me joy, awe and beauty.

Rumi said, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” Though written centuries ago, his wisdom rings true today; we must actively “do” something to keep the beauty that we love.

Now I’m ready to start a campaign here on Mercer Island to encourage all those coffee shops and kiosks to join in our efforts to drink bird-friendly coffee. The next time you stop by your favorite coffee kiosk, ask the barista, “Do you offer shade-grown coffee?” The more of us who ask that question, the more impact we will have to help protect some of our neighborhood birds.

It costs a few cents more to make my morning cup of coffee. But then I sit by my window and watch a Rufous Hummingbird dance among the flowers, flashing its brilliant red-orange gorget.


Frances Wood can be reached at She is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West” (Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colo.), available at local bookstores.

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