Singing for Songbirds

In the case of coffee production, the old ways are the best ways. Traditionally, coffee is grown in the shade of tropical overstory trees, which enrich the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. The practice preserves forest habitat for migratory songbirds, and is friendly to organic production. But by 1990, more than half of Latin America's traditional coffee farms had been converted to full-sun agriculture, with one of the highest percentages (60 percent) in large-scale producer Colombia. While it is very productive, full-sun coffee harvesting requires intensive use of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers (including some, like DDT and benzene hexachloride, that are banned in the U.S.). And fewer than 10 percent of the 150 species of North American songbirds that winter in Latin America can survive a season on a full-sun plantation.

Among the species threatened by full-sun coffee are the Baltimore Oriole (a 30 percent drop between 1980 and 1994, according to published reports); the Tennessee Warbler (a 70 percent drop); and the Cape May Warbler (50 percent reduction).

The issue has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. The National Audubon Society briefly marketed the shade-grown Cafe Audubon, but it was not a marketing success and was discontinued last year. Other eco-friendly entrepreneurs and brokers are trying to take up the slack by importing, packaging and selling shade coffee, using guidelines developed by The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

The shade-coffee issue is dependent upon public awareness. If 10 percent of American coffee drinkers switched to shade coffee, it would take more than 300,000 acres out of full-sun protection. Among the groups striving to make this happen is The Songbird Foundation, founded by singer Danny O'Keefe (best known for writing the hit “Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues). The Songbird Foundation is encouraging Americans to ask, “Is this coffee songbird safe?” as it funds on-the-ground shade tree efforts and partners with other organizations to develop a third-party certification process. It's also enlisting the support of musicians to increase public awareness.

Last year, O'Keefe organized a benefit for the foundation in Philadelphia that featured Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, both converts to the cause. “This is something that makes a direct difference in people's lives,” says O'Keefe, who is using his new album Running From the Devil to help drum up support. “You're empowering consumers with every cup of shade-grown coffee. And we're beginning to see the tide turning.”