Bird Friendly Coffee


coffee beansWhile I am not much of a coffee connoisseur or drinker, I do go through a pound of decaff every 2 or 3 months. Recently, when reaching for the organic beans, I noticed a big “Bird Friendly” label on the bag. I thought “Oh that’s cool”, but did not have any idea what it really meant. I had read about the importance of supporting economically and environmentally sustainable coffee producers and importers, and when the choice is available, I will always choose organic food, but this was the first time I had heard of “bird friendly” coffee.

With a little research, I discovered that coffee is traditionally a shade grown crop, planted in the understory of mature forests in Latin America. However, several decades ago there was an effort to streamline and “modernize” coffee production to more closely parallel the big business agriculture model that has become so common worldwide. This resulted in a turn away from traditional coffee growing methods. Much of the coffee in Latin America started to be produced on farms where the coffee was either grown under an unnatural canopy of only a few species of mature trees or pretty much right out in the open.

A photo of a bright yellow Hooded SiskinThis new approach to coffee growing allowed more sun to reach the coffee plant, but turned out to adversely affect the migratory bird population that winters in Latin America. These migratory birds depend on the varied natural forest ecosystem and it’s insect population to survive. Growing coffee this way also introduced the use of chemical fertilizes, pesticides, and disease controlling agents. In addition, the increased sun and fertilizer created a nice environment for weed growth, so the use of herbicides became necessary. Although this method of coffee growing resulted in increased yields per acre, it was eventually realized that the quality of the coffee was inferior to coffee grown in the shade of a natural forest. Coffee producers then began replanting their farms with trees to provide shade for the coffee. The replanting, however, was usually done with only one or a few species of trees, which, although an improvement, did not approach the diversity of a natural forest. In more recent years, growers have come to realize that by planting their coffee in the understory of a natural forest, birds are attracted to the farm and eat most of the insect pests that previously had to be killed with pesticides. Also, because the shade controls weed growth, herbicides are not needed. Finally, the slower growth of the coffee results in a denser, higher quality bean.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has developed a certification program for bird friendly coffee. Learn more about the history and working of this great program at the Smithsonian web site. If at all possible where you live, try to purchase coffee labeled with the Smithsonian stamp. I found mine in the “health food” section of a small local store, but I notice that almost all Fred Meyer stores also carry it. This certification does not seem to add much to to cost of a pound of beans and your resulting organic morning coffee will be healthier, for the forests, for the birds, for the coffee growers and for you!

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Will Sig
1 Will

Thanks for those facts, JD! Interesting about the wild bird specialty stores. We have one here. I’ll have to see if they sell the coffee also.



2 JD Thomas

Not to mention, if roasted well, shade grown coffee TASTES better. The slower growth seems to produce a more flavorful and less bitter bean.

Around here, you used to have to go to the local wild bird supply/feed/feeders/grain store to get it but now, thankfully, you can get it more places.

Also, shade grown coffee is more labor intensive so brings more jobs to the areas that grow it. Because it isn’t grown in regimental rows, the harvesting takes more bodies. Also, its slower growing cycle in the shade means that beans ripen at different times and that helps maintain a more stable economy in the areas where this kind of agriculture is practiced. There is less of a seasonal boom/bust cycle going on.


3 Will

Hi Alan. It will be the same as organic coffee. But as JD says with coffee, apparently the difference in growing method does create a much better tasting coffee. So might be worth the extra price.



4 Will

Hi Kopi! You and any comments are welcome here. Your blog sure fits the definition of “niche”!



5 Alan

We drink a lot of coffee and usually end up buying whatever is on sale. The next time I am grocery shopping I will be sure to look for the bird-friendly labels and will consider purchasing it if it doesn’t break my budget.


6 Kopi Dunia

Bird-friendly? That’s a new approach. Considering my blog theme I shouldn’t even be commenting here, but I like “real” coffee too, so thanks for the tip.


7 George conomos

Does Bird Friendly coffee need to be Fair Trade?

Does the farmer get any of the money or is it with the broker and roaster and how does that work?


8 Will

Hi George! I have been told that the Smithsonian “Bird Friendly” label coffee is fair trade in addition to being organic and sustainably grown. I have indeed purchased Bird Friendly Organic coffee at Fred Meyer that also has a Fair Trade stamp. It is difficult to find the Fair Trade claim in the Smithsonian site, however. I have emailed them asking to make it more clear on the website, and will send another request for clarification today.

So, in summary, I believe all “Bird Friendly” coffee, in addition to being organic, is also Fair Trade, but that may not be correct. There is nothing on the Smithsonian site that specifically says that. I would be even more sure of that if the Smithsonian would put it more visibly on its web site. I’ll let you know if I find out anything more specific.


9 Larry Jordan

Thanks for the great information on bird friendly coffee. I appreciate all the research you have done to answer questions also. I am a very concerned birder and an avid coffee drinker so now I am on a quest in my local area to find some of this obciously superior coffee!


10 Will

You are welcome, Larry. Your comment took a while to show up because of all the stuff related to transferring my domain, but it came through! I really like the photo of the beautiful bird on your March 4th post. We certainly don’t have anything like that in our backyard!



11 Mike Touch

Great information and it’s great that you spend so much time answering the questions commentators have.

Personally I don’t drink coffee so that’s today’s good deed ticked.


12 Julie

I’m an ecologist that writes a blog all about sustainable coffee, so perhaps I can answer George’s question.

For a coffee to get Smithsonian’s Bird-Friendly certification, it must also be certified organic. Farmers get a price premium for the organic certification, and often also get a price premium for the Bird-Friendly certification. Some of these coffees may also be Fair Trade certified, some may not. This might be due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Fair Trade certification is only available to cooperatives — individual small farmers or even larger family-owned estates do not qualify.

Smithsonian Bird-Friendly has the best and most stringent environmental criteria, but is also the smallest certifier. Still, if you know what to look for you can find sustainable (eco-friendly and providing a good living for farmers). I have a post providing some tips:

And a whole lot more about these issues! Thanks for bringing this to the attention of people!

Julies last blog post..What is the market share of eco-certified coffee?


13 Dave

Hi there, I just came across your blog. I roast organic, bird friendly, fair trade coffee……100%. I must say, coffees of these type are far superior to most any coffees you can find out there. Not many people even know what a fresh roasted coffee is……but when they find it, they seem to delve even further into understanding what makes such a great cup of joe. I’ve been to origin and seen first hand the effects of ecologically grown coffee. Thumbs up on a great post!



14 Coffee Bean Lady

What an interesting post. I’ll have to look for this next time I buy coffee.


15 Megan

Thank you for this information. It is just showing that eventually we realise that we should care for things around us and old methods are not always bad.


16 Joe Z. Bean

We drink tons of coffee, always have. We also have two pet birds. We will be on the lookout for bird-friendly from now on. We live in California in the Bay Area. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of this before. Anyway, great information, thank you.

Joe Z. Beans last blog post..Coffee Direct – Roasting From Your House


17 Gowan Rosemc

Can I consider your recommendation into a healthy range? Thanks for your post of this new approach. Expensive or not( you know, this is very significant for me, such a coffee lover)?


18 Erin DiGian

If anyone is looking for bird-friendly coffee, you can purchase it online through Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters out of West Chester, PA. We currently feature 7 different Bird-Friendly coffees to choose from and we will be getting an 8th in from Ethiopia shortly. We are a certified Smithsonian Institution’s Roaster and love educating people on the wonderful benefits this program brings. The coffee itself truly does taste better also! We feature 2 Bird-Friendly Coffee Samplers (a 7 pak and 15 pak), which allows you to taste all 7 Bird-Friendly coffees and determine which ones are your favorite. It’s amazing how different they all taste! We are a small family-owned company also, and we roast everything to order so it gets to you the freshest possible, much more than the coffees in the supermarkets.

Thank you Will for spreading the word on this great program!


19 Karina Diaz

Thanks for the information. I am currently a high school student and in my Ap biology class we are researching about shade grown coffee. I had found out some interesting facts about shade grown coffee.


20 Will

Hi Karina – That’s great that your AP Biology class is using a real world issue in class. Something you might point out to the class is the difference between shade-grown and coffee that is certified bird friendly. Some companies use and market the shade-grown claim rather loosely, but the Smithsonian program (linked in the article above), assures buyers that they are doing all they can to help the migratory birds. Thanks for your comment!


21 MJ

Agriculture will eventualy turn back to its roots.
.-= MJ´s last blog ..Make Astral Projecting Part Of Your Life =-.


22 Robert Rice

Will and others–

This blog and interchange is great to see. I’m glad that you, Will, pursued the questions you had about Bird Friendly® coffee and were able to solve most of them satisfactorily. In response to the question about Fair Trade and BF, I’d say that most BF coffee (aside from being organic, which is a pre-requesite for the BF seal) is also Fair Trade certified. It is the small producer cooperative that most frequently has coffee grown in ways that satisfy the BF criteria. Some estate (large, single-owner) farms certainly meet the criteria, and are listed on the website, but smaller holdings are those more likely to have the shade characteristics defined by the BF standards.

We try to post on the website the other certifications that farms or cooperatives have, so you’ll see that listed for some origins (Utz, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, etc.)


23 Will

Hi Robert – It is great to have feedback from the Migratory Bird Research Scientist at the Smithsonian. I see you have also studied shade grown cacao which I did not know about. I’ll read up on it. This post continues to be popular, even almost 3 years after I wrote it. It even has one of the highest number of links to it. If you don’t count the 8 or 10 posts I have written that have gone crazy, for example, one on Water Being The Next Oil, or The Dangers of Teflon, or The Effects of Using Antibacterial Soap, this post is right near the top. So people seem to really relate to the work you are doing. Thanks!

One question I get a lot you may have an opinion on. Many people email me asking where they can buy bird certified coffee. Because they can’t get it locally where they are, they want to know if by purchasing organic, shade grown coffee, even without the Smithsonian seal, are they are getting the same thing? I direct them to your map of locations, but then encourage them that if they can’t find it but are buying organic, shade grown, even without the certification, they can believe they are contributing to the “cause” by doing so. It does raise the question of why more of these shade grown, organic coffees are not certified. Perhaps it is the 25 cents per pound cost, but that seems unlikely. Do you have thoughts on that to offer readers?

Thanks again!


24 Anne Moss

That is so good to know! I detest the way modern agri-business doesn’t consider animal needs (farm animals or wild animals). Glad to see some people still do care.
.-= Anne Moss´s last blog ..Some Little Known Coffee Facts =-.


25 matthew

i love coffee


26 Anonymous

Thanks, I’ve started to become more conscious about my coffee. Mostly because I stumbled across and have been reading all about coffee production.
.-= Compost Tumbler´s last undefined ..Response cached until Wed 28 @ 1:27 GMT (Refreshes in 7.07 Hours) =-.


27 Liz from Simple Italian Cooking

You are right. Much of modernization has hurt many safe havens for birds. Hopefully this will change as coffee growers begin to focus more on quality than quantity. I think coffee for the “coffee enthusiast” is typically one commodity they willing to pay a little more for to get a better cup.

I know I do!


28 Bobby

I think a good slogan for a possible campaign to protect birds and coffee could be: “Coffee is for the Birds!” (insert groans here ___)


29 Will

Hi Bobby – Good one! How about “The Best Coffee is for the Birds”?


30 Rashelle

I try to keep up with the times when it comes to being environmentally conscious, but this is a new one to me. I’m going to have to add bird-friendly coffee to my list of eco-friendly items I look for when at the store. We have such a horrible impact on nature, it’s the least I can do to help out…


31 Hillary

Wow I had no clue. That is really interesting. that is what happens though when we try and change the natural process of something. It isn’t a wonder more areas of this are not being thought of for other products.


32 Anthony Vincent Samsel

Before you drink that cup of Joe, make sure it is ORGANIC COFFEE ! Sorry drinking coffee is now a game of Russian Roulette!
Some Coffee Growers now use Imidachloprid insecticide. Both TEMIK (aldicarb) and IMIDACHLOPRID are pesticides of choice for Coffee Growers and cause many, many diseases and neurological disorders. Temik will be removed from use in 2014.


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