Coffee with Orioles


The gorgeous orange plumage of the male Baltimore oriole is occasionally spotted in our region but is becoming less common due to habitat loss – a situation that could be helped in the long run by more responsible coffee purchases.

By Donald Attwood and Deborah Sick

Here’s a riddle – How is your backyard like a Costa Rican coffee farm? Both may welcome Baltimore Orioles, though at different times of the year. Orioles are flashy tropical birds; their bright orange feathers look like flames flickering in the trees. People remember and share stories about these charismatic birds.

Southern Quebec hosts 253 species of breeding birds in the summer. Of these, a great number migrate far south to their wintering grounds. Dozens of ‘our’ birds – from herons and egrets to hawks, falcons, flycatchers, hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, and orioles – winter in the forests and coffee farms of Costa Rica.

We live at what is currently the northern limit of the Baltimore Orioles’ range. They arrive in May and leave in August, migrating to Central and South America. Their lives are shaped as much by conditions in those southern regions as by conditions here in the North. Both here and there, human disruption of their habitat is one reason that orioles – and other wildlife – have become much less common.

Deforestation is an old, sad story. In past centuries, European settlers cut down the majestic old-growth forests that once covered eastern North America. That happened to be good for orioles, who prefer open woodlands, parks, and orchards, but it was a disaster for most wildlife. In Central and South America, European colonists likewise cleared forests to plant coffee, cacao, and sugar. Coffee, a crop that could be grown by both small and large farmers, spread rapidly through the region.

Coffee was originally an understory tree or shrub growing in Africa; until fairly recently most coffee was grown in at least partial shade. In the 1970s, farmers began adopting coffee hybrids which tolerate more sun. By cutting down forests to plant ‘sun coffee’ using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farmers can grow more coffee per hectare. Unfortunately, the overall result has been fewer native forests and more chemicals in the environment. This is bad for birds (and humans) and in the long run environmentally unsustainable. As coffee production worldwide increases, conditions for birds are getting worse.

One thing we can do for birds is to buy coffee grown on farms that protect biodiversity. Certified organic coffee uses no chemical inputs, and certified shade-grown coffee is grown under at least partial shade from multiple tree species. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), based in Washington, D.C., has the most rigorous certification standards for its Bird Friendly coffee, which must be grown organically and with strict criteria as to the number and diversity of shade trees. Supporting biodiversity and ecosystem health, bird-friendly farms partly resemble natural forests.

Most shade-grown certification schemes are aimed at small-scale family farms, as it is hard for large plantations to meet the shade requirements (and many are simply not interested). Research on shade-grown coffee shows that farmers can benefit from more trees and tree species, which attract a greater variety of insects and birds, providing pollination and controlling harmful insects. A study in Jamaica found that migratory birds preyed heavily on the coffee berry borer, coffee’s most feared insect pest. Three species of migratory warblers, including the American Redstart, an attractive red-and-black warbler that breeds here in Quebec, did the most damage to this pest.

In addition, farmers can benefit from the fruit and lumber that some trees provide. Tree cover helps soils remain moist, porous, and fertile, and coffee grown in shade is less exposed to violent hurricanes. Shade coffee also provides insurance, for farmers and for us, against global warming, as forests soak up carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, shade-coffee yields are often lower than for sun coffee grown with chemical inputs. The Bird Friendly requirement that 10 per cent of fields be planted in the shade of trees means fewer coffee trees per hectare, and in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, adding more shade can also reduce yields. In addition, farmers must maintain at least 10 different native tree species per coffee field. This is difficult for many whose fields are less than one hectare. And fast-growing non-native trees (a good source of firewood) are banned. (Non-native trees do not support the many birds, frogs, ants, etc., that flourish in native forests.)

There are other costs as well. Certification requirements set by conservationists in the North can be difficult for farmers to follow. Farmers (or their associations) must pay the costs of applying for certification and monitoring. As well, many farmers have limited schooling and are not able to keep the detailed records required. Others lack access to processors that can handle organically grown coffee separately from conventional coffee (a requirement for organic certification).

To compensate for the lower yields of shade coffee and the cost of certification, farmers need better prices. This is where we come in as consumers. Buying Bird Friendly coffee supports farmers who help maintain vital ecosystems. Le Nichoir coffee, which is locally roasted and certified Bird Friendly, Organic, and Fair Trade, can be found in grocery stores or ordered online at for pickup at Le Nichoir Wild Bird Conservation Centre in Hudson. A portion of what you pay supports Le Nichoir, a registered charity.

Coffee provides an example of how the products we consume affect birds, wildlife, ecosystems, and global climate. But coffee is just one of many crops grown in the South and consumed here. (Palm oil plantations, for example, are much worse for the environment.) And farming practices in the South are only half the story. Bird habitats in North America are also diminished by farming practices, including mechanized cropping in fields stripped of shrubby borders that once supported diverse wildlife. So, yes, let’s support bird-friendly coffee producers, but let’s also think more about bird-friendly farming practices here at home.

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