Imagine sipping your coffee one morning with no songbirds singing outside your window. This may seem extreme and yet it could become reality. In the last 50 years, Canada and the United States have lost 30% of its birds. This decline will only worsen due to habitat loss and climate change. Many of these at-risk species undertake an incredible 6000-kilometer journey from the Boreal forests of North America to winter in the highland forests of South America. Birds must migrate south during our winter months, because they would not survive low temperatures and lack of food. Their survival strategy depends on overwintering in warmer climes with available food sources. Deforestation in South America’s overwintering regions is the primary reason fewer individuals return every year to North America to breed during the late spring and summer.
What can we in North America do to support the conservation of these critical tropical habitats to stem the loss of our bird population? Simply put, drink only shade-grown coffee. To illustrate the connection between our coffee choices and conservation of South American highland forests, we can look to a conservation icon for both the Boreal and tropical forests, the tiny, ten-gram Canada Warbler.
We have documented the loss of over 60% of the Canada Warblers in North America in the last 50 years. Due to unprecedented rates of deforestation on their wintering grounds, these warblers and other migratory birds have been forced into agro-ecosystems that maintain native trees and provide “forest-like” habitats, such as shade-grown coffee plantations. While conservationists have promoted shade grown coffee plantations as a means to provide much needed habitat, are they really a suitable habitat and comparable to the local native forest? To answer this question, for five years every winter, I travelled to the Colombian Andean mountains tracking the Canada Warbler and assessing where they are most successful.
We captured Canada Warblers in two habitats: the shade-grown coffee plantations and forests. We assessed their body condition (muscle and fat) and documented their rate of survival to serve as indicators of habitat suitability. Birds in both habitats had similar survival rates, which indicates that shade-grown coffee plantations provide suitable winter habitat for Canada Warblers, and the conservation value of this habitat is similar to forest. Thus, it is critical to maintain and protect both forest and shade-grown coffee to stem the decline in migratory bird populations.
Unfortunately, shade-grown coffee plantations are a disappearing refuge for biodiversity due to the global increase in coffee demand, and changes over time in how coffee is cultivated. Until the 1970s, all of the world’s coffee was grown underneath forest canopies across the most biodiverse regions of the world. Today, however, three-quarters of the world’s coffee is grown in the full sun or low shade. This intensive mono-crop farming drives deforestation, and thus the decline in wildlife populations. To address the loss of shade coffee plantations, conservation and coffee certification programs have been developed to provide economic incentives to coffee farmers to keep native trees in their plantations. However, there is an excess of shade-grown coffee available, because demand is insufficient. We must take action quickly, because this lack of demand is a risk to the trees in these plantations. With no buyers for surplus shade-grown coffee, farmers might convert their plantations to other crops and pastures. Not only will the conversion of shade-grown coffee plantations result in a loss of forest cover, it will have a negative impact on North American forest-dependent migratory species, such as the Canada Warbler and on resident wildlife.
The findings of my research demonstrate that by making informed ethical coffee choices we can be a part of the solution to conserve the winter habitat for migratory birds. Furthermore, shade-grown coffee plantations capture more carbon than conventional farming, and increase farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change by protecting crops from raising temperature. Smallholder farmers in the tropics are one of the lowest income groups in the world and they would also benefit from the economic incentives of shade-grown conservation programs.
Our coffee might be stronger than we think, and we have the power to maintain and increase the number of trees in the tropics one cup at the time. As demand for shade-grown coffee increases so will the canopies and suitable habitat for migratory birds.