Cornell Lab: Shade-Grown Coffee Could Help Save Birds

Female Blackburnian Warbler in a coffee bush in Colombia. Photo by Guillermo Santos

Cornell Lab of Ornithology News:

ITHACA, NYThe message about the bird-conservation benefits of shade-grown coffee may not be getting through to the people most likely to respond—birdwatchers.

A team of researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech surveyed birdwatchers to learn if they drank shade-grown coffee and, if not, why not. Their findings were published today in the journaPeople and Nature.

“One of the most significant constraints to purchasing bird-friendly coffee among those surveyed was a lack of awareness,” said Alicia Williams, lead author and former research assistant at the Cornell Lab and Virginia Tech. “I was surprised to see that only 9 percent of those surveyed purchased bird-friendly certified coffee and less than 40 percent were familiar with it.”

Sun-grown coffee (left) is a monoculture of coffee bushes. Shade-grown coffee (right) offers more habitat for forest species. Photos by Chris Foito/Cornell Lab (left); and Guillermo Santos (right)

Bird-friendly coffee is shade-grown, meaning that it is grown and harvested under the canopy of mature trees, a process that parallels how coffee was historically grown. But with most farms converting to full-sun operations, crucial habitats for migrating and resident bird species are being lost. Loss of habitat is a key factor in the overall decline of many bird species.

“Over recent decades, most of the shade coffee in Latin America has been converted to intensively managed row monocultures devoid of trees or other vegetation,” explained Amanda Rodewald, the Garvin Professor and senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab. “As a result, many birds cannot find suitable habitats and are left with poor prospects of surviving migration and successfully breeding.”

Mourning Warbler. Photo by Guillermo Santos

According to the survey, there’s confusion about what certifications exist, where to buy bird-friendly coffee, and how coffee production impacts bird habitat.

“We know birdwatchers benefit from having healthy, diverse populations of birds, and they tend to be conservation-minded folks,” said Assistant Professor Ashley Dayer of Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “We need to mobilize the estimated 45 million U.S. bird enthusiasts to help limit bird population declines. One way to do that is to encourage birdwatchers to seek out and purchase bird-friendly coffee, in stores and online.”

Increasing awareness about shade-grown coffee and its potential impact on bird populations may include more and better advertising, more availability of the product, and collaborations between conservation organizations and coffee distributors.

Products referenced in the survey:

  • Organic
  • Fair Trade Certified®
  • Rainforest Alliance®
  • Smithsonian Bird Friendly®
  • Utz Certified®
  •  4 C Common Code®
  • Nespresso AAA®
  • Starbucks C.A.F.E.®


Alicia Williams, Ashley A. Dayer, J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera, Tina Phillips, Holly Faulkner-Grant, Miguel I. Gómez, and Amanda D. Rodewald. Tapping birdwatchers to promote bird-friendly coffee consumption and conserve birds. People and Nature. March 2021.