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There’s a lot to love about the transition from winter to spring and then spring to our beloved summer. For many of us, it’s the moment when cold and snow and worse are replaced by warmth and sun and a lot to look forward to. And one of the things we look for most are the songbirds that return to our neighborhood trees. They’ve been missed, and we wonder: Where did they go in the first place?
Would you believe coffee farms?
Over 40 species of migratory songbirds—everything from warblers and orioles to tanagers and thrushes— love coffee as much as we do, if, that is, it’s shade-grown.
Shade-grown coffee is coffee the way coffee used to be, which is to say it’s not grown on plantations from which all native vegetation has been cleared to make way for endless neat rows of coffee trees. Instead it’s raised underneath a canopy of indigenous trees that have been allowed to remain. That’s how coffee originally came to be, and the trees it evolved under create a perfect habitat for songbirds, who flock to shade-grown farms every autumn.
In addition to supplying our coffee, these farms offer a winter sanctuary to the migratory birds that supply our summers with song. Unlike a conventional all-coffee-no-forest plantation, the trees left standing on shade-grown plots provide the vital food, water, and shelter that our migratory songbirds need in order to gain the weight required to fuel their long often difficult trek back north for breeding each spring.
Without this food and shelter, migration is much more difficult and birds become far less likely to survive the trip and successfully raise their next generation of young. It’s one of the primary reasons North American songbird populations have been declining—the warm winter habitat they depend upon has been disappearing to various kinds of development. Shade-grown coffee is playing a critical role in reversing that trend, and scientists are showing us just how important it can be.
Shade-grown farms in Guatemala, for example, have 30% more birds than traditional sun-soaked plantations. A study in Chiapas, Mexico counted 46 species of migratory songbirds on shade-grown plantations but found only 6 to 12 species on nearby unshaded operations. Shaded farms in Venezuela were found have 14 times more migratory birds than even nearby forests.
Shade-grown gives other gifts as well. It creates habitat for large numbers of native plants, animals, and insects; reduces the need for pesticides; protects water resources; and even fights climate change by absorbing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
That’s why we love shade-grown and use as much as we possibly can. It’s harder to find, and harvests aren’t as large so it’s a little more expensive to buy, but we think it’s more than worth it. We can’t put a price on the avian beauty that fills our North American summers. But paying a little more to fill our cups to save it is a bargain in our hands that’s worth far more than two in the bush.