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Survey finds few birders purchase bird-friendly coffee

A female Flame-colored Tanager perches in a coffee tree on a farm in Panama. Photo by Sue Bishop/Shutterstock

In a recent survey of birdwatchers who are coffee drinkers, only 9 percent of more than 900 respondents said that they buy Smithsonian Bird-Friendly coffee and 38 percent said they’re familiar with it.

By contrast, 50 percent purchase organic coffee and 52 percent buy Fair Trade coffee, which includes standards for labor and environmental practices.

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. These days, most farms in Central and South America and the Caribbean operate full-sun operations, in which coffee grows faster but habitats for migrant and resident bird species are lost.

The study, published this week in the journal People and Nature, was conducted by researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, Cornell University, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Columbia University.

“Our estimate falls within the range of the two other studies we’re familiar with related to bird-friendly coffee purchasing,” explains Ashley Dayer of Virginia Tech. “A 2017 found 4 percent of U.S. respondents purchased bird-friendly coffee, and a 1999 study found 17 percent of U.S. respondents were very interested in purchasing shade-grown coffee when the description included protecting bird habitats. I wouldn’t expect actual purchasing behavior to be as high as ‘interest’ as we know that people often don’t act on their interests or intentions. We had expected that a study of birdwatchers would be higher than the U.S. population in general (and it was) – but we weren’t sure by how much.”

Not at most grocery stores

The study also found that “49% of birdwatchers consider conservation of migratory bird habitat a required product condition.” However, the researchers note that “if roughly one half of the current population of birdwatchers in the U.S. were purchasing bird-friendly coffee, there would be nearly 23 million birdwatchers buying bird-friendly coffee.” The actual number is much lower.

One reason is lack of availability.

“Our findings point to an issue with bird-friendly coffee not being widely available and that keeping people from purchasing it,” says Dayer. “Speaking from personal experience as a bird-friendly coffee drinker, it is tough when you run out of it that you can’t just pick it up at the grocery store. You often have to put in an online order and wait for it. When I worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, our gift shop sold it and that made it much easier to consistently drink it.”

Indeed, the places where most coffee is sold — supermarkets and coffee shops — rarely offer bird-friendly varieties.

The new study doesn’t explore how to make bird-friendly coffee more widely available, but Dayer has some ideas.

“I am aware of coffee cooperatives that buy in bulk that work in some places, especially through bird clubs,” she says. “Some zoos are now making bird-friendly coffee available at their cafes (and colleagues are studying whether this changes consumer behavior at home). A student’s thesis from the University of Texas at Austin suggested that consumers could ask retailers to stock bird-friendly coffee and even provide them with information about how to do so. I do agree that this is a good idea, and I suspect it might be more effective at small health-food stores than at larger grocery chains. But it’s worth trying wherever you shop.”

Learn more about coffee and birds at Julie Craves’s website Coffee & Conservation.

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