There’s a beeping in my ear. It’s dark. Nothing makes sense, and then I remember that we set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. to be ready for dawn birding. I stumble downstairs, hating that I stayed up late binge-watching a couple of “Homeland” episodes. Is this my excuse to grab Starbucks on the way to the birding patch? “Nope,” I tell myself. Time to heat up the kettle.
Birds, meet Coffee.
Birders love coffee. We also love birds, obvi. I admit an addiction to both. Surprisingly, the two are directly linked. What if I were to tell you that one of these obsessions often has a negative impact on the other? No, birds aren’t stealing your daily cup of joe, but our daily coffee intake may harm the very birds we’re addicted to.
There are a lot more informative articles than this one. The Cornell Lab via Living Bird Magazine, the National Audubon Society, and many other groups have published much more robust articles summarizing the nature of the Bird Friendly® certified coffee conversation and how it supports the birds that live on the farms, and the people who grow and farm the beans. Dig deeper into the subject with the following three articles:
- “In Colombia, Shade-Grown Coffee Sustains Songbirds and People Alike”
- “How to Choose a Bird-Friendly Coffee”
- “Making Sense of Coffee Labels: Does Your Coffee Support Wintering Warblers?”
The aim of this post is to provide an overview and encourage action in the hope that our daily drink choice can provide a better source of food and habitat at the other end of feathered migration, particularly in the context of chilly weather and fall migration. (Bonus: Your coffee will taste better too.)
Full disclosure, I’m far from being a coffee snob, and I’ve never been a barista. I just like coffee… and birds. I don’t only drink bird-friendly coffee, as I’m a big fan of the 80% rule: Trying to do anything at 100% all the time is often unrealistic. So, let’s start small and help birds with one cup of coffee at a time.
Supporting the long-distance heroes
Birds are lovable, awe-inspiring, goofy, scary (to some) and so on. I love birds because of their diversity and their reach. As birders know, the range of the birds that we flock to see during spring and fall migration extends from North to South America. It’s not just species scattered across large land masses, it’s individual birds moving across continents – not just through a single season, but also through generations. This is best summarized in Kenn Kaufman’s book A Season on the Wind:
“Every baby blackpoll warbler in the past nest has the blood of heroes pumping in its veins; every one of its ancestors was an astonishing champion, going back thousands of generations. That is the epic legend the bird carries on its journey, not in words but in its heart.”
Years ago, I read a mini-article from the Cornell Lab that mentioned the fuel efficiency of Blackpoll Warblers. After years of my art studio sitting dormant, I was inspired by the article to draw and paint. What about these ‘hero warblers’ brought me out of my creative slumber? It was their heroism, their grit, and their legend.
During a Blackpoll Warbler’s almost 2,000-mile non-stop fall transit across the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds, these warblers’ ‘engines’ simmer at the equivalent of 720,000 miles per gallon. And they rack up an average of 11,000 to 12,400 miles per year, according to recent research. (Tesla’s got a bit of catching up to do.) But while these migration stats are impressive, the question remains, is there a gas station at the end of their journey?
Bird-friendly coffee means more birds in your backyard
As migration begins to ramp up in the eastern U.S., we challenge you to think about the relationship between birds and coffee.
Many birds traveling from Canada to Central and South America will need to refuel during stopovers and at the end of their journeys on their wintering grounds. These places often house our future coffee grounds, but the majority of coffee farms look like clear-cut, monocrop hillsides and mountainsides.
Growing coffee plants in the open with plenty of sunlight means about three times the amount of coffee beans that shade-grown coffee can produce. Unfortunately, this type of production contributes to deforestation and loss of biodiversity, which in turn leads to the loss of insects, fruit and other resources that long-distance migrants need to replenish. Coffee farms under shade of tall trees, with plenty of understory and mid-story vegetation, offer more food.
From the mountains of Columbia and the rainforests along the Amazon River to your local patch and backyard, the coffee you sip makes a difference for the birds, the farmers, and us. And there’s no time like the present to start brewing as the birds begin their southward trajectory. Drinking bird-friendly coffee helps keep migratory bird populations alive and stable. But if you don’t want to drink coffee for the birds, do it for you! It’s tasty, high quality, flavorful, and will help keep migratory populations robust enough to visit our local yards and patches.
Home-brew tips and hacks for lazy brewers
The sun is starting to rise, and my kettle is about to boil. It’s time to choose this morning’s brew. Do I use the French press, or do I use the AeroPress? Here’s how I decide, plus my favorite café au lait AeroPress hack.
Which brew method to use comes down to the French press for bold flavor and coffee in volume (e.g. a full thermos for early-morning birding) or the AeroPress for fun recipes, like the one below, for that yummy pick-me-up to start the day. Pour-over coffee is great, filtering out some of the harsher tastes of French-pressed brew, but it takes a bit longer. Also, while the French press steeps, I can finish getting ready to go birding. The joys of multitasking, amiright?
Following are some tips for your inner coffee geek:
- Bird-friendly coffee brands: If you live in the Midwest, I recommend ordering Wood Warbler Coffee so the beans arrive fresh and oozing of flavor potential. Birds & Beans Coffee also offers good taste, and other coffee companies are trying their hand at bird-friendly roasts, like Gimme Coffee’s Guatemala Guaya’b. You can find more options using the Smithsonian’s Where to Buy Bird Friendly Coffee locator.
- Arabica beans: Always skip the Robusta beans, aka truck stop coffee. Why? Because big-name coffee brands use it for large yields and cheaper production, which means larger, monocrop coffee farms that are bad for birds. In my opinion, it has a burnt water taste. Arabica beans have a smoother, superior flavor. Trust me.
- Burr grinder: Jeff Canada, owner of Wood Warbler Coffee, recently told me it was time to buy a burr grinder. He was kind enough to share a list of his recommended grinders at different price points. (We settled on this one.) I ordered some whole beans and put the new grinder to the test. Jeff couldn’t have been more right: the flavor of freshly roasted and ground beans is tip-top.
- Electric kettle: An electric kettle heats up super fast, and it looks pro on the countertop next to our burr grinder.
- Digital scale: It sounds nuts, but weighing your grounds, and even your water, gives you a consistent cup of joe. And you can experiment with the beans-to-water ratio.
Yoerger-style AeroPress Café au lait
Total time: 5 minutes
Makes 2 servings
- Enough water to fill the aero press and pre-heat the mug
- One AeroPress scoop of freshly ground coffee
- ~2 oz. oat milk
- Electric kettle
- Burr grinder
- AeroPress, including filter
- Coffee mug
- While your kettle heats up, insert the plunger into the AeroPress. Flip the AeroPress upside down. Grab an AeroPress scoop of bird-friendly coffee and toss it into the inverted AeroPress.
- Before the kettle boils, set your timer to 90 seconds. Grab a small glass jar, add a couple ounces of oat milk (trendy, I know, but oat milk has a lower carbon footprint than other plant-based milks), and warm it for about 30 seconds in the microwave.
- Once the kettle is ready, start your 90-second timer. Now, fill the press with the hot water, stir it a little, and cap off the AeroPress with a filter.
- This step is optional: While the coffee steeps, you can pour some of the extra hot water into your mug to warm it up. It sounds excessive but give it a try! Your cup of coffee will stay at an optimal temperature much longer.
- When the timer sounds, flip the AeroPress right-side up and place it over your mug. Press the plunger down in one steady push. Set the AeroPress aside.
- Grab the oat milk jar, place the lid on it, and shake it like you’re making a martini for James Bond. Pour the warm, shaken oat milk into the coffee mug. It creates just enough “froth” to mimic a café au lait, all while using inexpensive coffee gear.
- Lastly, go birding. And when you get a Blackpoll Warbler in your binoculars, feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that your feathered friend is going to have a full belly when it arrives on its wintering grounds.