Why Shade Grown Bird Friendly Coffee Should Be Your Go To Cup

Looking to be more responsible and eco friendly when it comes to your coffee drinking habits? You’ve got your reusable cup sorted but what about the coffee itself? 

Bird friendly coffee is your highest standard of environmentally friendly coffee. 

Organic is great, and so is Fairtrade, but certified bird friendly coffee offers something even better. 

Being shade grown, bird friendly coffee takes it right back to how the coffee plants were grown. This takes into account the wider ecosystem and wildlife within it. 

This blog will talk about through:

  • What bird friendly (and shade grown) coffee is
  • The reasons why it’s better 
  • How it helps the environment 
  • Bird friendly certification 
  • The brands that sell shade grown coffee

The background to bird friendly coffee 

You may be wondering what coffee has to do with birds? Well, everything really. This is all about understanding where produce comes from. 

Originating in tropical Africa, coffee is now grown in various tropical locations around the world. These locations are particularly important when it comes to wildlife and biodiversity levels, including that of migratory song birds. 

With large corporations wanting to maximise their coffee yield, species-rich habitats such as rainforests are being deforested to be replaced with coffee bush monocultures. This is a terrible move for both local and migratory bird populations, as well as all other animal and plant species in the area.

It’s thought around 75% of the world’s coffee is grown in an un-friendly way for birds. 

coffee growing natural shade rainforests

Coffee naturally grows in shade

This hasn’t always been the case. Natural coffee plants have evolved under tree canopy. They are an understory bush, meaning they need natural shade to protect them from the burn of the tropical sun. 

Although coffee plants are perfectly happy to grow under the shade of the tree canopy, they do so at a slower rate. As you know, time is money for the big corporations, which has led new coffee plants to be developed which are capable of growing in full sun.

What is bird friendly coffee?

Bird friendly coffee is grown under the natural forest canopy of tree tops, which preserves healthy species rich habitats, maintains important tropical ecosystems and supports local wildlife and migratory birds.

With sustainability at its core, bird friendly coffee is produced with the environment in mind. It’s certainly an ethical coffee that’s for sure. It’s all about preserving living ecosystems rather than destroying them first to replace with monoculture coffee plantations.

Bird friendly coffee can also be known as shade grown coffee. I’ll be using the terms fairly interchangeably here, but there is a subtle difference. 

Bird friendly certification ensures the coffee has been produced to support birds and preserve the ecosystem. It’s always shade grown. Shade grown coffee doesn’t always go the full way in looking after the ecosystem. Most of the time it does, but not always. 

So, bird friendly coffee is shade grown but not all shade grown coffee is certified bird friendly.

For this reason, look out for the Bird Friendly Certification logo – more on that shortly.

Why is shade grown coffee better?

CREDIT [Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center] BF Shade Graphic
Source: Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

Shade grown coffee has many environmental and social benefits, which make it a brilliant, sustainable alternative. 

Bird friendly or shade grown coffee is better for multiple reasons:

  • Preserves tropical rainforests and important habitats
  • Supports migratory and local birds
  • Associated with greater levels of animal and plant biodiversity 
  • Keeps the ecosystems stabilised
  • Maintains soil health
  • Certified Organic (no harmful pesticides or unnecessary chemical fertilisers)
  • Support farmers committed to sustainable production
  • Better for workers – often Fairtrade certification (better price for the farmers)

As explained here on the Bird and Wild blog, shade grown coffee benefits animals and plants of all kinds. 

Shade grown coffee farms in Indonesia have been associated with a 90% increase in bee populations. In Mexico, 184 bird species were found in just one shade grown coffee site, which surpasses the usual 6-12 bird species in sun-grown coffee plantations multiple times over. 

Plant biodiversity, mammal abundance and insect populations in shade grown coffee habitats can also be many, many times higher than those found in unshaded plantations. Check out these fascinating biodiversity facts.

How does shade grown coffee help the environment?

Shade grown coffee is a form of agroforestry. As I explain in my blog on sustainable agroforestry, agroforestry is the technique of growing a selected crop alongside selected, often native, tree species for the benefit of the local ecosystem. 

Coffee grown under a tree canopy is far better for the environment than sun-exposed coffee monocultures. Sun-grown coffee means there’s no overhead canopy, which means there are no trees for birds.

Growing bird friendly coffee as part of an agroforestry system brings multiple benefits for the environment, including:

  • Providing habitat to support high levels of biodiversity
  • Absorbing atmospheric CO2 
  • Storing carbon in the soil
  • Reducing soil erosion
  • Water storage 
  • Climate change mitigation

It also makes sense. Why wouldn’t you grow understory coffee plants with natural trees? The beans take longer to mature, but the quality is much better, with the coffee beans full of sugar and oils. Even better, these trees are often fruit trees, which could provide a secondary income. 

When specifically talking about bird friendly certified coffee, it has to be grown organically first and foremost. This is without the use of chemical-based pesticides and other nasties that could harm the environment.

costa rica rainforest coffee plantation

Is there bird friendly coffee certification?

The only bird friendly, shade grown coffee certification that currently exists comes from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre (SMBC), which is a part of the National Zoo in Washington DC.

The SMBC is the gold standard when it comes to growing sustainable produce and protecting the environment. act as a third party accreditor for coffee farms to be assessed and approved as ‘bird friendly’. 

To be officially certified as Smithsonian bird friendly, the coffee must cover the following SMBC criteria:

  • Certified Organic
  • More than 40% foliage cover during the dry season 
  • Canopy height of 12m (with native species including Inga)
  • Biodiversity represented by at least 10 woody tree species 
  • Canopy structure should be evident at the coffee farm with at least 3 layers
  • Leaf litter, weeds and herbs should be present
smithsonian bird friendly coffee logo

The Smithsonian criteria mainly targets environmental standards rather than the social and working conditions. However, good working conditions need to be met to be certified organic. 

The bird friendly certification lasts for 3 years and currently covers coffee and cacao production.

There are currently 5,100 certified bird friendly farmers spanning 11 countries across the globe. 

Bird friendly coffee brands UK

Bird and WildBird & Wild is one the UK’s leading Shade Grown & Bird Friendly certified coffee. They use recyclable LDPE 4 coffee bags (check with your local authority if they are curbside recyclable). 

Bird and Wild create seasonal blends from different bird-friendly coffee of the world. For every bag of shade-grown, Fairtrade and organic coffee they sell, they donate 6% of sales to the RSPB Wildlife Charity.

bird and wild coffee

Cafeology Based in Sheffield, Cafeology have launched a range of bird friendly coffee under the ‘love coffee love nature’ brand. 

Cafeology is a sustainable and ethical company, with many good and transparent practices. They have single origin, bird friendly coffee where they can tell you the exact farm it’s come from. 

If you’re brewing your coffee in a cafetiere or with filter papers, don’t forget to compost your coffee grounds.

Wrap up on bird friendly coffee

More people need to know about the unparalleled environmental benefits that come with shade grown coffee. Although it’s known by the bird friendly name, it’s not just birds that benefit. All sorts of animal species, mammals, insects, trees and other plants benefit from caring about the environment when growing coffee.

Coffee grown under tree canopy shade also brings with it multiple benefits in terms of carbon sequestration, soil health, reduced erosion and less chemical use.

So, next chance you get, opt for a bird friendly shade grown coffee.

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Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!). I write and send out the Eco Life Newsletter.