Every morning, as millions of Americans lift that steaming hot cup of coffee, they may unwittingly be adding to the decline of America's songbirds.
It may sound far-fetched, but scientists say there's enough evidence to warrant real concern.
Environmentalists are preparing to raise the alarm and give every java-drinking American a way to help solve the problem. Ordering a cup of "shade grown" with a bagel may soon be as common as asking for "decaf." In fact, shade-grown coffee could soon become to the '90s what "Dolphin-safe tuna" was to the '80s.
Every winter, millions of orioles, warblers, and wood thrushes flock southward from the backyards and forests of North America to Central America's traditional, shade-grown coffee plantations. But in the past 20 years, almost half of those old, rain forest-like coffee plantations - known as shade plantations - have been replaced by high-yield, sun-grown farms. The new farms strip away forest cover, and thus, the birds' winter homes.
"We'll never know for sure, but ... there's been a very, very rapid change in this habitat," says Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington.
Since 1980, the number of Baltimore orioles has declined between 25 and 30 percent, according to the US Breeding Bird Survey. The population of wood thrushes has dropped more than 40 percent and the number of golden-winged warblers have been cut almost in half.
Greenberg admits myriad factors could be blamed, from an increase in house cats to a loss of forest. But because the declines have been steady across the country for certain species, he is certain the explanation lies in Latin America.
Studies have found only half as many migrating birds wintering in sun-grown coffee fields as in shade-grown plantations. In some sun-grown fields, few if any birds were found.
"You can't tell a forest from a shade coffee farm, they've got the same tall canopy and rich underbrush" says Chris Wille of the Rain forest Alliance's ECO-OK program in Costa Rica.
The Rain forest Alliance and other groups have started programs to "certify" shade-grown coffee. While the effort is still in the early stages, they're hoping consumers will catch on quickly.
"It's easy for consumers to understand. Traditional shade-grown coffee is going to protect the birds we love here in the US," says Sarah Comis, director of product licensing at the National Audubon Society in Washington. Audobon is working with the Smithsonian to come up with its own shade-grown brand called Coffee Audubon. The American Birding Association already offers "Songbird Coffee." And Wildbirds Unlimited, a national franchise, has just agreed to carry ECO-OK coffees which have been certified as shade-grown by the Rain forest Alliance.
"It will be interesting to see how consumers respond," says David Griswold, founder and president of Sustainable Harvest, an organic and shade-grown coffee importer in Emoryville, Calif.
Mr. Griswold says people won't go far out of their way to buy coffee, and getting a large, commercial supermarket brand to source all of their coffee from shade-grown plantations is "just too big a leap, right now." Most supermarket brands are now made from far less expensive sun-grown coffees from large industrial plantations.
But Griswold and others are betting on America's estimated 60 million "birders" and the specialty coffee market to provide shade-grown conscious consumers. If people are already willing to spend $8.99 a pound for a fine blend, the environmentalists believe they'll be willing to pay a few pennies more to be sure it's shade grown.
BUT Starbucks, the nation's largest specialty coffee retailer, is balking at carrying shade-certified coffees. Mary Williams, vice president of green coffees for Starbucks, says it's unfair to ask the farmers of shade-grown coffee to go the additional expense of getting their plantations certified, when they already "know what they're doing is correct." She says Starbucks consumers should "trust" them to do the right thing.
But conservationists argue there needs to be an identifiable symbol produced by an objective, independent organization to assure consumers the coffee they're buying is indeed good for America's birds and the environment. Some Starbucks competitors agree. "The certification that will serve people best is one that is easily understood, because if the coffee doesn't sell, it isn't going to be sustainable in any form," says Rick Peyser of Green Mountain Roasters in Waterbury, Vt.