Bird-Friendly Coffee: Why are YOU waiting?
Three years ago one April morning, I stood at the edge of a shade-grown coffee plantation near Cerro Azul Meambar in central Honduras. My guide, the honorable Jorge Barraza–arguably one of the best travel guides in Honduras– had just led me down a narrow footpath toward the coffee “finca,” or farm. “Look!” I said as a bird flew into a tall, umbel-topped tree. A Baltimore Oriole flew into its winter home.
As we watched with binoculars, our eyes caught more rustling movements. So many, In fact, that we stood with mouths agape for nearly 20 minutes as birds flew in and out of the tree. Every time there was a pause in activity, and I’d slowly start to turn away, but a flash of new movement would buzz by, and I was captivated all over again. Our voices, hushed with amazement, rattled off the names of each species as they came and went.
As if a blinking neon “All You Can Eat Buffet” sign stretched above the canopy, birds arrived to the tree en masse to feed small, tender fruits that hung in clusters like grapes. With claws clenched to woody stems, the birds bent down, craned their necks to pluck a fruit, then bent their heads back for a mash and hearty swallow.
By the end, we’d counted a spectacular 18 species of birds.
One Tree. Eighteen species of birds. Twenty minutes. Think about it.
This was one of the best birding moments of my life, the kind that grabs you by the soul and shakes you and makes you thank God you’re alive–but it was also one of the most instructional.
This was a moment where I saw first-hand the benefits of leaving trees and other precious habitat in and around coffee plantations. This is where I internalized the need that my favorite and most beautiful breeding birds–such as the oriole, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, and the Scarlet Tanager—have for winter foliage and food. These birds were on the cusp of their northerly migration…and found both rest and respite here in Honduras during the winter.
This trip was informative in another way. As we traipsed through young forests in search of singing birds, many times I smelled smoke from a small fire, saw in the distance a man with a machete hacking away at limbs and trunks, then quietly disappearing from view.
“Gathering wood for fuel,” explained Jorge, helplessly shaking his head. Honduras, despite being rich in natural resources, is poor economically. People do not have the luxury of a pipeline silently, invisibly delivering gasoline to fuel their stoves. So they walk into the nearest patch of woods with their machete, cut down what they need, take it back home and stuff it in an adobe oven where they fix red beans and rice to spread over hand-crafted tortillas. In Honduras, forests are protected by law but enforcement is weak. How can you look at a man and tell him he cannot cut wood in order to feed his family?
At first, the coffee farm below me looked like any other swath of wild land, I wouldn’t have noticed the coffee beans had Jorge not pointed them out. He plucked five reddish green coffee beans from one plant and handed them to me. I tucked them into my pocket and carried them home with me on the plane.
I carried them home as a reminder of all that I had learned that day. The years of text-book lessons that were translated, in a moment’s notice, into bone deep knowledge.
Yet still, for three additional years I carried on, drinking fair trade coffee that I bought in bulk off the Internet, thinking of, but not acting on, the forests that were being destroyed in these exotic coffee-growing destinations such as Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Hawaiian Kona island, among others.
Why is this? I couldn’t blame ignorance. I knew many times over how important habitat is. But I could blame inertia and a lean pocketbook. At $6.95 a pound, it was fast, easy and cheap.
You could say it is deceptively cheap, as long as I failed to tally the costs to bird populations, global warming, water resources, and a myriad of other factors.
“Mister!” he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs” –
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed-
“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”
Well, common sense (or was it the Lorax?) finally caught up with me. I’m now buying certified bird-friendly coffee from Birds & Beans.
There are a few different bird-friendly certifications out there, including Smithsonian Certified Bird-Friendly and Rainforest Alliance. Both are positive movements, but Birds & Beans coffee uses the Smithsonian certification, which is more rigorous in terms of the quality and quantity of habitat it requires coffee plantations to maintain.
Birds & Beans carries four different blends. I enjoy Scarlet Tanager dark roast (recommended by several of my birding friends who started their bird-friendly crusade long before me), but you can also buy Chestnut-sided Warbler medium roast, Wood Thrush light breakfast roast, and Baltimore Oriole French Roast Decaf. Bags start at $10.75 a pound.
Upon opening one of the several two-pound bags, I was pleasantly moved by the black, shiny beans and the pungent aroma. Each morning, my husband and I brew it up in our French press, pour it into our cups, and let the rich taste linger in our mouths before swallowing. As we tip our coffee cups, we see how its aromatic sludge settles to the bottom. I realize that people who put sludge and coffee in the same gleeful sentence are not normal. But then, we buy the darkest bean and brew a strong pot. You can just as easily get away with a light roast, a decaf, or maybe the dark roast with a lighter brew.
But this is the point of my post:
As bird lovers, nature enthusiasts, and well-meaning citizens, we must make informed and responsible choices. We must fight the inertia of what’s easy and cheap, and always question the products that major corporation put in front of us 24/7. They are rarely what is right for us or the planet. These earth-friendly products may cost a little more, and we may have to go out of our way to get them, but consider your extra time and dollars a small investment in a better tomorrow.
If bird lovers like us create a critical mass of bird-friendly coffee drinkers, we can have measurable impacts on bird populations–and even save our favorite breeding songster–long into the future.
I hope you’ll join me and others who lead the way for bird friendly coffee.
Buy now at Birds & Beans, or first do a little consumer research at the excellent website created by well known writer and ornithologist (and coffee enthusiast) Julie Craves: Coffee and Conservation, or coffeehabitat.com.
Then Holler Back in the comments:
Do you already drink bird-friendly coffee?
Then stand up and be counted! What brand/flavor? Where do you purchase it?
Is there a reason (or two) that you haven’t tried it yet? What would bird-friendly coffee sellers have to do to make it easier on you?