To Help Save Habitat, Drink this Coffee


bird friendly

Sure, you can buy coffee that’s certified organic, but there’s another certification that includes organic and goes even farther – Bird-Friendly Coffee.

Our seal of approval ensures tropical “agroforests” are preserved and migratory birds find a healthy haven when they travel from your backyard to those faraway farms producing the beans you so enjoy every morning.

Every cup of Bird Friendly coffee you drink encourages more farmers to grow in the shade, which is good for birds and for people


But who’s doing the certifying, you ask? USDA-accredited agencies using science-based criteria created by none other than the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, a research and conservation organization that deserves more attention than its nonexistent promotional budget allows. Their research in the heavily deforested regions of Central and South America where coffee is grown reveals that the best chance of increasing habitat there is to turn tree-less fields into shade-grown coffee farms.


I asked the director of the Smithsonian’s coffee program, Dr. Robert Rice, about the difference between shade-grown and, in my words, “regular” coffee. He explained that most coffee is grown in full sun, in fields like the ones above in Costa Rica and Peru, because full sun increases the yield and profits.

But coffee is an understory shrub from East Asia Africa, where it produces beans among trees, so the challenge is making it just as profitable and easy for farmers to grow coffee among trees. Here’s the pitch Rice’s team is making to growers:

  • The production costs are lower because coffee plants live 10-18 years and demand high levels of expensive agrochemical inputs in full sun, but live up to 30 or more in shade, where nutrients are recycled naturally in these agroforestry systems.
  • Consumers are already paying 10- to 30-cents more per pound for organically certified coffee, and many of these environmentally concerned buyers will pay a bit more to save habitat.

There ARE other coffees being sold as “shade-grown,” but the Smithsonian certification goes a step further…

requiring a variety of native shade trees throughout the coffee plantation. Through decades of research, we’ve learned the combination of foliage cover, tree height and diversity needed to provide suitable migratory bird habitat while maintaining productive farms. Producers must be recertified every three years to ensure they continue to meet these requirements and can truly call themselves Bird-Friendly.

Some shade-grown programs don’t require shade trees meet a minimum height—a factor studies proved is critical to create quality habitat for neotropical migrants and resident birds.

The Smithsonian’s certification requires the presence of at least 11 different species of shade trees be grown, and that they be at least 12 meters tall so that there will be a variety of habitat niches for birds. Here’s what a coffee farm looks like after it’s been reforested and certified as Bird-Friendly.


Here are just some of the migrating birds whose winter habitats are being preserved by growing coffee in shade. Clockwise from upper left they are: Magnolia Warbler, Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Black and White Warbler, and Black-Throated Blue Warbler. They’re familiar to us here in North America but they spend the winter in mid-elevation parts of Central and South America.


Because the availability of insects is critical to these birds, the Migratory Bird Center is researching which trees sustain the most insects. It’s known, for example, that here in the temperate zone of North America, Tulip Poplars and Redbuds support about 19 species of insects while oaks support 557 species! So the Bird-Friendly team is studying which shade tree species best serve birds’ culinary demands so they can recommend them to growers interested in maximizing the habitat value of their farm.

How You Can Help

With no budget for promotion, the Bird-Friendly certification is still largely unknown in the U.S.  Dr. Rice tells me it’s better known in the U.K. because of endorsements by top birding organizations, and especially in Japan where two roasters there “are killing it,” thanks to the importance of birds as symbols of nature in Japanese culture.

In the U.S., the Bird-Friendly certification has been endorsed by Cornell and some bird organizations and been written about in a few birding magazines. All nature organizations are being asked to help, but maybe GardenRant readers could give them a nudge.

And if you’re a garden or nature writer, you know what to do.

Photos courtesy Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center


  1. I was surprised to see that my state, Oregon, has no roasters or importers of this certified coffee. Is this a fairly new certification? I know it sometimes takes a while for growers to transition, especially if it’s expensive to do so and the grower already has other certifications they are paying for and complying with.

    • The BF certification has been around since the year 2000. Any roaster’s opting to include a BF coffee in the offering simply depends on whether they know about the certification and if they think there’s a market for it in their area. (They also have to agree to remit pennies on the pound to the SMBC research team’s research fund.) It’s a good way to differentiate some of their coffees–and many BF coffees are also Fair Trade certified.

      For growers, the cost of getting certified BF is minimal compared to say, organic. It’s actually a supplemental inspection/certification to organic, given that organic certification is a pre-requisite. But if growers can find a buyer for the BF and negotiate a small premium for the BF seal in their sale price, they easily make up the cost of the certification and can gain substantial returns for the BF seal.

      Finally, it is small peasant producers who most easily comply with BF standards. Being risk-averse, they tend to have diverse agroforestry systems based upon coffee production, but with a host of other products (firewood, fruits, construction material, and even home-remedy medicinal plants) coming from the “coffee farm”. In many countries, it is these peasant farmers who are the champions of good land stewardship–so rewarding them with a premium price for what they do brings some economic benefit to this agricultural system with an environmental dimension.

      • Thanks for clarifying, Robert. I am really surprised there aren’t any roasters or importers in Oregon, I am pretty sure there would be a market. I am also interested in the fact that it is the small peasant farmers who are doing this, and how do they find their premium markets? That kind of marketing/distribution can be expensive.

  2. Great article and this practice should be utilized across so many other coffee growing areas. One quibble: The coffee we cultivate originates from Northwest Africa and Southwest Asia, Ethiopia and Yemen, specifically, not East Asia.

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if all Smithsonian building brewed bird-friendly coffee? Amongst all of their buildings, that is a LOT of coffee.

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