Making Sense of Coffee Labels: Does Your Coffee Support Wintering Warblers?

By Gustave Axelson
October 9, 2012
How was your coffee grown? Look out for labels to find out if your cup of joe is bird friendly. Photo by Hugh Powell. How was your coffee grown? Look out for labels to find out if your cup of joe is bird friendly. Photo by Hugh Powell.
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Imagine you walk into the neighborhood coffee house for your morning cup of joe, and on the counter is a tip jar with a sign reading, “$ for wintering warblers” with a photo of a Chestnut-sided Warbler in a tropical forest. You’d drop your change in, right? Any proud bird watcher would do their part for the wellbeing of the sprightly warblers that delight us so much come spring.

It’s not such a stretch of the imagination. Many of our most colorful songbirds, including warblers, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks, spend five months of the year in and around shade coffee plantations in Mexico and Central and South America—but only if the birds can find them. Shade-coffee plantations—particularly ones that grow coffee under a natural forest canopy—are increasingly being deforested, leaving North American migrants with fewer places to spend the winter.

The good news, says York University researcher Bridget Stutchbury, is that you can have your tasty roast and your songbirds too if you buy sustainable coffee, particularly Bird Friendly coffee. Stutchbury’s studies of Wood Thrushes show the sweet-singing birds of Eastern forests have declined by 50 percent since the 1960s. Yet, with regenerating forests in the Northeast, Wood Thrushes now have more breeding habitat than they did decades ago.

To look further, Stutchbury tracked individual Wood Thrushes from the U.S. to Nicaragua and back. She found that regional Wood Thrush population declines matched deforestation trends in Nicaragua, where forest cover has dropped 30 percent in just the past two decades. This deforestation likely affects other declining songbirds, too, such as Baltimore Orioles and Chestnut-sided and Kentucky warblers.

Can shade-grown coffee help these birds? Most coffee drinkers figure the answer is yes. But as it turns out, the words “shade-grown” on a package of coffee can refer to a range of habitat conditions that offer varying degrees of refuge for migratory songbirds.

Making Sense of Sustainable Coffee Labels

They’re those little rectangular icons lined up on your favorite gourmet coffee bags—a tree, a flower, a frog, a harvester, each trying to tell you something about how the coffee was grown. But what does each one mean, and how do they differ? Here’s a list of common labels and their benefits for birds. For more specifics, see the list of links below.

  • b-fBird Friendly. Certified by scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, this coffee is organic and meets strict requirements for both the amount of shade and the type of forest in which the coffee is grown. Bird Friendly coffee farms are unique places where forest canopy and working farm merge into a single habitat. By paying a little extra and insisting on Bird Friendly coffee, you can help farmers hold out against economic pressures and continue preserving these valuable lands. The good news is that there’s more Bird Friendly coffee out there than many people realize—we just need to let retailers know we want it (see below).
  • USDAOrganic. As with other organic crops, certified organic coffee is grown without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and is fairly sustainable—although there are no criteria for shade cover. Because of coffee’s growth requirements, it’s likely that organic coffee has been grown under some kind of shade, which is good. However, many farmers shade their coffee using other crops or nonnative, heavily pruned trees that provide substantially less habitat for birds, and the organic label offers no information about this.
  • raRainforest Alliance standards for shade cover are less stringent than Bird Friendly, but more than 70 percent of Rainforest Alliance certified farms maintain shade cover and the standard promotes preserving forest in reserves and along waterways. On farms where forest canopy is not the native ecosystem type, conservation area set-asides of 30 percent or greater are required in the standard.
  • ftFair Trade. Inspired by humanitarian concerns, Fair Trade labeling helps to ensure that the workers on coffee farms get paid fairly for the work they do. The higher prices that Fair Trade products earn help to provide an alternative to the price leverage that large coffee buyers can wield. However, a Fair Trade label does not convey any specific information about environmental practices.
  • Shade-grown. “Shade-grown” labels often appear on specialty coffees, but unfortunately this designation is not regulated and doesn’t tell you much about the growing conditions at the farm. When the idea for Bird Friendly coffee was hatched by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1996, plans for the certification process faltered while coffee companies quickly adopted the term “shade-grown” as a marketing buzzword. Unfortunately, this type of coffee can be grown among sparse trees on farms that lack diverse forest structure. Some shade-grown coffee is even grown under only the flimsy cover of banana trees fed artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
  • “Specialty” just means the coffee scores 80 or higher on a tasting scale. It has nothing to do with environmental conditions, though specialty coffees do tend to come from smaller farms that often have some form of shade cover, which helps impart a richer flavor to the coffee.
  • Sun-grown. Most coffee grown at an industrial scale is grown under full sun. Acres upon acres of coffee bushes planted in hedgelike rows are sustained by fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. Cheaper brands of coffee are likely produced with these methods and are unsustainable.

Bird Friendly Farmers Offer Half a Solution—We Can Be the Other Half

Bird Friendly certified coffee can be hard to find on store shelves and in coffee shops. One reason is that the standards for certification are so rigorous that only a small fraction of coffee farms can qualify. The total amount of Bird Friendly coffee certified in the past 12 years amounts to less than 2 percent of the Rainforest Alliance–certified coffee in 2011 alone.

But there’s another, paradoxical reason: coffee sellers don’t always advertise that their coffee is Bird Friendly. “Probably about only 10 percent of coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms carries the Bird Friendly stamp on the package,” says Robert Rice, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

For example, Starbucks and Whole Foods sell some coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms. But they don’t see the need to make room on their packaging for a separate label that appeals to a relatively small—and silent—minority: birders. And without the consumer demand and higher prices for Bird Friendly coffee, past history in Central America suggests that the market pushes coffee farmers toward partial-shade and sun-grown practices.

That’s understandable, Stutchbury says. “We can’t demand that they don’t cut down their forests, and give up money, unless we’re willing to give them something as compensation.” That’s the central idea behind Bird Friendly certified coffee: paying a price premium to growers on rustic coffee plantations so that they can continue to provide prime bird habitat.

The good news is, birders can make a difference—by asking retailers to stock Bird Friendly coffee, and by buying it. Think of it as a tip jar next to your coffee maker. More than 46 million Americans say they watch birds, and half of all Americans drink coffee. “If every birder in the U.S. committed to drinking Bird Friendly coffee, the market would grow 1,000-fold,” says Bill Wilson, owner of Massachusetts-based Birds & Beans, an online coffee retailer that specializes in selling only Bird-Friendly coffee.

Stutchbury says it’s time for birders to assert themselves in the coffee marketplace. “Buying Bird Friendly coffee is one of the best ways you can do your part to preserve wintering habitat for our migratory songbirds,” she said.

Where to Buy Bird Friendly Coffee

Grab a supply of Bird Friendly coffee with the help of these Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center pages:

More Resources on Coffee and Bird Habitat


  • Scott Weidensaul

    Thanksgiving Coffee, like many roasters, sells “shade coffee” with no certification, leaving the consumer without a way of knowing whether the coffee really benefits birds. That’s the reason Bridget Stutchbury, Kenn Kaufman, Wayne Petersen and I, along with a number of other people (and organizations like Cornell, Mass Audubon and Hawk Mountain), have been pushing the Smithsonian “Bird Friendly” certification – you can be certain your coffee purchase is preserving the best possible bird habitat.

  • Rachel

    Thank you, what a great blog! I have thanked the suppliers of this coffee in my hometown of Houston!

  • I would love to know where I can buy Bird-friendly Coffee in Western Canada but its not on your map. Right now I buy organic coffee from Seattle’s Best in the grocery store, but as you article says that doesn’t mean its shade grown or bird-friendly. Help?

  • Brenda Best

    I’ve been buying our coffee from Birds & Beans for a few years now. Their French roast decaf is the best decaf I’ve ever tasted. And this is one way I can contribute my “conservation dollar” to the places the birds I love to watch spend most of their year.

  • I’ve tried to buy Bird Friendly coffee in the past; but it’s simply not available at retail, not even at specialty stores that the Smithsonian lists as carrying it, not even in major markets like New York City.

    If you want this effort to have any impact, it needs to be possible to find at major retailers like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, or Amazon. Even Audubon brand coffee (which is available at Amazon) does not carry this certification.

  • Bob Asanoma

    Cornell Lab of O doesn’t sell the coffee because sales aren’t brisk enough without a lot of it going past the expiration date. Thanks for the website as I’ll now try Mother Earth Natural Foods in North Syracuse, NY which is only a couple miles from me.

  • jill mack

    I have been buying Birds and Beans coffee on line for several years now. With Christmas coming up, now is a good time to introduce your gift list to this wonderful coffee. I also order it for birthday gifts. And, a side note – they often have drawings for birding books for their customers. So, make the leap to a really good product–and help your favorite birds at the same time.

  • Blake Wilson

    I’ve been buying ‘Kicking Horse’ coffee, roasted in western Canada. The label on this certified organic coffee makes the following claim: “Our organic coffees are grown in the shade of the rainforest canopy, providing a natural environment for birds and plants. These conditions…maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem.” Is this brand really rustic shade grown? Their website doesn’t elaborate on this claim.

  • Gus

    I’m glad that this story has sparked such a robust discussion about birds and coffee. I’m the writer on this post. And I’ll share a personal anecdote: I had been buying coffee that I thought was beneficial to preserving wintering habitat for Neotropical songbirds—warblers, tanagers, and orioles—for eight years. Then when I started researching this story, I found out my money spent on coffee very well might not be accomplishing anything for these birds. My takeaway from looking into this issue—there’s only one way to be 100% sure your coffee money is going towards farms that support quality forest habitat for our wintering Neotropicals, and that’s by buying Smithsonian-certified Bird-Friendly coffee. It’s difficult to find in stores, but in this day and age of e-commerce, it’s very easy to set up an automatic coffee delivery to your home from an online retailer. And now I’ve got complete peace of mind. No more shuffling through store shelves and wondering about labels. I’m guaranteed to get bird-friendly coffee I can believe in.

  • fred underwood

    I purchase Cafe Ibis coffee. They offer several degrees of roasting, as well as decaf flavors. Many are certified organic, fair trade, and smithsonian bird friendly. Very flavorful coffees.

  • Scott Olmstead

    I have been trying to buy only shade-grown coffee for a couple years now but I was always confused by the array of labels, so this post was fascinating for me.

    Perusing the SMBC website there doesn’t appear to be any physical retail option in Tucson for bird-friendly coffee. There’s an online retailer nearby, but most people don’t buy their coffee online, and that’s not likely to change in the short-term. So although I might start buying bird-friendly coffee online, I’m more concerned about making it available to the millions of people who just go to the grocery store and grab whatever looks good off the shelf.

    So the one thing that is missing from this post, for someone like me who wants to see this coffee more widely available in major stores, is what can we do to get it there? I’m prone to being an activist and I’d be more than happy to go into my local Sprouts or Trader Joe’s and try to talk with the manager for a bit, but is there more information I can give them besides just directing them to the SMBC website with the list of online distributors?

  • Gus,
    Wow, thanks for the education. I will try and do my part to increase awareness. All of my friend’s are getting bird friendly coffee this year!
    Dian Miller

  • I was surprised to hear that, “…only 10 percent of coffee from Bird Friendly certified farms carries the Bird Friendly stamp on the package…” because of packaging constraints and feeling that the small birding community isn’t enough of a reason.

    I don’t think you have to be a birder to appreciate sustainable coffee. I think the label would enourage all nature-lovers to purchase for that reason. And yes, I will be asking retailers more often to stock Bird-Friendly Coffee.

  • Gus

    Good question, Scott.

    I don’t have any experience in retail, so I’m not sure what the levers are for getting retailers to carry Bird-Friendly coffee, beyond their customers asking them to carry it.

    I did find this link of Bird-Friendly coffee importers on the Smithsonian website:

    Perhaps if you talked to your local coffee shops and grocery stores and directed them toward that list, the stores could contact the importers about sourcing Bird-Friendly coffee.

    Another point to make when talking to retailers: Bird-Friendly coffee is superior quality coffee. Because it is grown in a natural forest setting, where decaying leaf litter acts as fertilizer instead of chemicals, Bird-Friendly coffee is richer tasting. Also, because coffee in a forest setting can’t be machine harvested, it must be picked by humans, who are capable of choosing only the ripe coffee berries.

  • Hi Gus,

    I know we spoke about the 30% minimum content requirement while you were researching this piece, but I wanted to address this so anyone reading your article will understand.

    The Rainforest Alliance allows companies to use our green frog seal if contents contain a minimum 30% Rainforest Alliance Certified content, but companies must clearly display this fact on packaging. In part because of the demanding certification standards, which were established by grassroots conservation groups, it takes time to build supply. Allowing companies to use the seal before they have reached 100%, but have made a commitment to increase to 100% as soon as practicable, is a realistic approach that benefits wildlife, workers, and their families.

    I also want to highlight the importance of Rainforest Alliance certification in providing habitat for birds. The Sustainable Agriculture Network criteria for Rainforest Alliance certification requires coffee farms to maintain at least 40% forest cover over their crops, with an average of 12 different native tree species per hectare. This is vital for migrating birds.

    In El Salvador, for example, the 146,000 acre Apaneca Biological Corridor is a patchwork of forest fragments of high ecological significance, connected by shade-grown coffee farms. These connectors safeguard migration routes for wildlife, including the country’s more than 500 bird species.

    This provides a good example of the tangible impacts of the shade requirements of Rainforest Alliance certification.



  • Chris

    Great article but there is no mention of Songbird Coffee, a brand heavily marketed through the American Birding Association (Aba). The coffee brand claims to be “shade grown”, as well as Fair Trade, and the company “gives back” a percentage of sales to the ABA. It is quite heavily marketed through the ABA. They are a large, very bird-committed organization.

  • Thanks Chris, I will add that to my post about about java choices. I will do some searches for that.

  • Chris

    I need to correct my comment re Song Bird Coffee: While its true the ABA is a bird-centered organization, I have no idea if Songbird Coffee meets the requirements noted in the original article. I was surprised the writer had not come across it, that was my point. I didn NOT intend to endorse Songbird Coffee! It may be bird friendly but I really do not know for sure.

  • Joyce

    No bird friendly coffee shops in the ever progressive Madison, WI?? What’s up with that!

  • I was under the impression that buying organic coffee was the same as buying bird friendly coffee so thanks for giving the specifics.

  • John R T

    The mountainous Los Santos coffee-growing region of Costa Rica seems to be an ideal location for SI certification. However, the farms I have visited comprise such steep terrain, few ‘trees’ survive; various shrubs mature and persist to heights over three meters.
    My question, Gus, “Am I being too precise? do these smaller plants satisfy the 12 species per hectare spec?”

  • Gus

    Thanks for your question, John. I posed it to Robert Rice, research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and he said that while he’s not familiar specifically with the Los Santos region of Costa Rica, “from the description, it’s most likely in a cloud forest (or former cloud forest) area, where shade trees are often quite sparse by choice of the growers for reasons of disease control. Too much shade in these wet, foggy elevations leads to problems with a number of fungal pathogens. The 3 meter vegetation he mentions would not meet the 12 meter standard for Bird-Friendly certification.”

  • Thanks for updating this page. I went to the bird friendly coffee tasting in 2009. There’s an awesome bird call sound room at the Ornithology Lab.

Making Sense of Coffee Labels: Does Your Coffee Support Wintering Warblers?