In the 1990s, the intensification of coffee farming practices came to the attention of ornithologists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), part of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. Researchers studying the decline in migratory songbird populations noticed that coffee farms with dense and diverse shade trees supported more migratory songbirds than any other habitat—even more than forests. They theorized that, if they could create a market for coffee grown on farms that conserve this high-quality habitat, overwintering migratory birds would have a greater chance of survival. From there, the Smithsonian Bird Friendly® certification was born.
Bird Friendly was created to support coffee farming practices that actively conserve habitat for wildlife. When coffee retailers, including zoos and aquariums, choose Bird Friendly certified coffees, they create a market-based incentive for farmers to retain native shade trees on their land. This provides an economically viable alternative to the sun-grown coffee monocultures that leave no place for wildlife.
Based on Smithsonian research, Bird Friendly is the only certification to guarantee that 100 percent of coffee is grown on lands that conserve wildlife. This certification upholds the strictest criteria for biodiversity conservation—to be certified by the Bird Friendly program, producers must maintain a minimum of 40 percent shade coverage over their crop, have at least 11 tree species on their land with 60 percent of the species being native to the region, and maintain a minimum tree canopy height of 12 meters. All Bird Friendly farms must also be certified organic, ensuring no hazardous pesticides or chemicals are ever used in production. Together, these criteria make Bird Friendly the gold standard in biodiversity conservation within coffee growing landscapes.
Despite the clear benefits to biodiversity, Bird Friendly occupies a small corner of the coffee market. Less than one percent of global coffee lands conserve wildlife habitat through Bird Friendly certification. Yet the certification is growing, with 31,000 hectares of coffee in 12 different countries producing over 20 million pounds of Bird Friendly certified coffee beans each year. Certified coffee moves through the Bird Friendly supply chain, from producers to importers to a community of more than 50 roasters and retailers, where it is then sold to coffee drinkers bearing the Bird Friendly logo. However, low consumer awareness and limited points of sale remain key barriers to the expansion of certified farm area. Without a growing base of Bird Friendly coffee drinkers, farmers may not retain or adopt Bird Friendly certification in the future, putting long-term habitat conservation at risk.
The challenge of generating outreach and awareness around Bird Friendly certified coffee—particularly among environmentally conscious consumers—is being answered by the AZA community. As a network of conservation organizations collectively reaching more than 200 million annual visitors, engagement with environmentally conscious households is one of AZA’s greatest strengths. Zoos and aquariums are challenged with providing accessible messages and opportunities to engage this audience in their conservation missions—the Bird Friendly certification provides an opportunity for AZA institutions to do just that. With its roots in science and conservation and strong support from the SAFE North American songbird program as a key initiative, the “Drink Bird Friendly®” message is an accessible yet impactful conservation action for visitors to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.
Bird Friendly is the only certification to guarantee that 100 percent of coffee is grown on lands that conserve wildlife.
Selling Bird Friendly coffee is also an example of a sustainable behavior that can be modeled at an institutional level, with many AZA-accredited facilities offering coffee at concessions or in gift shops. When a facility makes the switch to Bird Friendly coffee, it not only offers an environmentally conscious coffee choice for coffee drinkers, but also demonstrates a greater commitment to sustainability to its audience. Making the switch to Bird Friendly provides an opportunity for AZA facilities to model a conservation behavior to audiences and provide an immediate opportunity to adopt the behavior on-grounds, all while helping to build demand for Bird Friendly farming practices.
In 2020, SMBC began pursuing a stronger relationship with the AZA community, with support from an AZA Conservation Grants Fund award. These efforts centered around the development of resources that would increase the sale and support of Bird Friendly certified coffee within the zoo and aquarium community. With strong support from the SAFE North American songbird program, SMBC spent the following year conducting surveys and interviews with dozens of AZA professionals, as well as more than 1,500 zoo and aquarium supporters, to better understand the barriers and benefits to supporting Bird Friendly coffee at the institutional and individual level.
This research paved the way for the development of 30 unique resources designed to meet the needs of zoos, aquariums, and their supporters, when considering a transition to Bird Friendly certified coffee. These resources were organized into five toolkits, with each toolkit designed to meet the needs of zoos and aquariums at different points along their journey to support Bird Friendly including at the leadership, retail, concessions, education, and visitor services levels.
Released in January 2022, these toolkits fueled the adoption of Bird Friendly coffee within the AZA community. Prior to the start of the project, just three zoos and aquariums sold Bird Friendly coffee—today, 27 institutions have made the switch to Bird Friendly certified coffee at concession stands and gift shops, with even more supporting the “Drink Bird Friendly” message as a conservation action.
The AZA community is also embracing Bird Friendly beyond the sale of coffee—Lehigh Valley Zoo in Schnecksville, Pa., features Bird Friendly coffee within their “Coffee, Chocolate, and Critters” educational program, which connects the animals under their care to sustainable chocolate and coffee production. Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, Del., collaborated with a local roaster, Brandywine Coffee Roasters, to create a custom Bird Friendly certified coffee that donates two dollars from every bag sold back to the Zoo’s conservation efforts. Both Brandywine Zoo and Lehigh Valley Zoo have partnered with local roasters to bring Bird Friendly coffee to their communities, with an additional four roasters joining the Bird Friendly program because of their relationship with a zoo or aquarium. Naples Zoo in Naples, Fla., has introduced Bird Friendly signage to their facility, proudly displaying their institutional commitment to a coffee that benefits biodiversity. And in Wheeling, W. Va., Oglebay’s Good Zoo’s transition to Bird Friendly has ensured that those attending AZA’s professional development courses will have a Bird Friendly caffeine fix to fuel their learning.
The movement to “Drink Bird Friendly” continues to grow within the AZA community, as more facilities learn about the certification and seek to transition to a more sustainable supply chain. To learn more about the Bird Friendly program and join the migration to Bird Friendly certified coffee within AZA, visit s.si.edu/birdfriendly or e-mail the program at email@example.com. Access the AZA-Bird Friendly toolkits directly at nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/bird-friendly-resources-for-zoos-and-aquariums.
Photos Credit: © Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center