Shade Grown and Our Neotropical Song Birds

The Old Man called it “mud.”  To Uncle Ed it was “Joe,” and to Aunt Evy, it was Java.  They all agreed, however, on the use of “cuppa,” and about as close as any of them got to its origins was “Hawaiian,” “Columbian” or “mountain grown.”  Today, we enjoy our “coffee” in one or more of a hundred flavors and roasts, and often with a nod to where and how the beans were grown.

As we wrapped up our Wednesday morning Rodeo City Radio Club coffee klatch, heading outside, we surveyed the weather.  Someone mourned our mostly gone birds, and expressed a gratitude for hot, dark coffee on ever cooling mornings.  I started thinking about connections among our birds and our coffee and our ability to live well in Paradise.

A decade or so ago, over breakfast at Jay and Carol Reed=s home in Denver, we found ourselves deeply into just that conversation.  Jay and Carol owned a Wild Bird Center, making them official bird pros.  We were lost in the aroma and flavor of one of the Rainforest Coffees they hawked in their store—Nicaraguan, as I recall—and Jay was regaling its “shade grown” qualities.

Feeling the need to prod him a bit, on that sunny early summer morning, I asked Jay about why the homeys of Paradise should care about shade grown coffee.  He looked at me as though I’d lost my mind.  “You are a geographer, right?  That=s ag land, right?  Don=t they irrigate hay and other crops up there?  And don=t you have a ton of horse people worried about West Nile?  Well, Neotropical birds are up there right now singing, making babies and eating insects like crazy.  The more they eat, the less insect damage there will be to crops and the fewer mosquitos will be looking for someone to infect with West Nile…”  He was right, of course.

“Neotropical” means New World tropics—the tropical areas of North, Central and South America.  More than 100 species of these birds spent the last five or six months in Washington making and growing more birds, many of them here in Paradise.  They are now heading back to ag land and rainforests in Mexico and points south.

Our more common Neotropicals include the vireos, warblers (Wilson’s, Audubon’s, Townsend=s and MacGillivray’s), golden‑ and ruby‑crowned kinglets, flycatchers, nighthawks, hermit and Swainson=s thrushes, violet‑green swallow and several sparrows (Lincoln’s, fox and   white‑crowned).  You probably watched one or more of them regularly.

Anyhow, they arrived in May, scattered to favored nesting habitat (primarily in mountainous and riparian areas), and started devouring our insects—literally tons of them.  Consider, for example, that just one swallow may consume 2,000 mosquitos in a night.  Add it up.  They help us in countless ways.

One of Jay’s points was that Neotropicals continue to decline in much of their range.  The fragmenting and cutting of riparian and forest habitat here creates stress for nesting birds and, often, loss of broods.  As in much of the West, development across Washington causes the regular loss of breeding bird habitat.  Still, the primary cause of the decline is loss of wintering habitat.  In tropical America (Mexico and Central and South America), huge tracts of forest are cleared for agriculture.  Since Neotropicals use only ten percent as much habitat in winter as summer, loss of those tropical forests is critical.

Right at a third of our breeding migratory birds winter in the coffee growing regions of tropical America.  Coffee grown the traditional way, or close to it, leaves rainforest and mixed forests intact for birds.  Coffee grown in full sun, with fertilizers and insecticides, produces much larger yields for the two-thirds of farmers who have cut their forests, but leaves little food or habitat for the birds we depend upon here.

There are obviously deep and many underlying cultural and economic reasons for deforestation, and a number of national, UN and privately‑sponsored education and research programs are underway.  So far, success has been limited.  A terrific source for information about birds, coffee and habitat will be found at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo page, at  Under “Science Centers” click migratory birds and you will find out more than you ever imagined about our Neotropicals and their future.

Over the last decade, “bird friendly” coffee sales have reached more than 10 million pounds worldwide—still a small percentage of the brews we savor, but significant.  Jay would make the argument that every time we go to a coffee shop and order shade-grown coffee, we are actually aiding the horse owners and ag economy of our beloved valley.

Our insects are settling into their overwintering forms.  Our Neotropical song birds are hanging out in the tropics, waiting for spring and another chance to come north and make more birds.  We are sipping our hot, dark, rich coffee, and looking through the cold gray of winter toward a successful 2014.  The coffee that gets us there is worth a serious thought.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized