As a boy, when I was not in school or playing baseball, my days were mostly spent at wonderful places out of doors—in the woods or in the sandpit, catching frogs, or taking care of the pigeons. Mine was not a boyhood in deeply rural America. I was born and raised in the northeast corner of New Jersey, in what is now one of the most densely populated areas of the United States.
One of my favorite pastimes was exploring local farms. These farms had white-tailed deer, red and grey foxes, squirrels, rabbits, possums, raccoon, skunks, woodchucks, and muskrat aplenty. We saw snakes, toads, frogs, salamanders, box turtles, wood turtles, and in the clear, cold brooklets that flowed down from the Palisades on one farm, impossibly beautiful tiny brook trout.
And lots of birds. Wood Thrush song filled the woods throughout spring and early summer. There were Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Brown Thrashers, migrating and nesting warblers, flashes of Scarlet Tanagers, swallows, and on and on.
Peregrine Falcons still nested on the Palisades. American Woodcock in season were a constant. Canada Geese were seen only in passage; they were truly wild geese in those days.
The farms around us were small. Most raised vegetables and fruit to sell at farm stands, export to the commercial markets in New York or, in the case of apples, to make cider. We did not look for exotic or rare birds.
But it was on the farms that we most often saw the unusual: a Snowy Owl sliding through a woodlot one January, waves of Common Nighthawks over ripened corn in late August evenings, Ruby-crowned Kinglets bobbing on spent raspberry thickets in November.
As development and DDT took hold, much of the abundance we took as normal began to disappear. By the late 1960s it was all but gone and so was I, an urban dweller for the next four decades—but lucky enough to visit rural and wild places regularly. As time passed, my thoughts frequently went back to these pleasant places of my youth.
About eight years ago, we started a business to make it easier for coffee drinkers in the U.S. to buy coffee certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center as Bird Friendly. I visited farms in Latin America where our coffee comes from, and was struck by the extraordinary abundance of bird life and natural habitat in these places. Different habitat, different flora and fauna, different history, culture, and languages—but somehow many of the same enchanting attributes of the family farms I remembered from home.
The commerce of coffee served as a link. So did the presence in our winter of many of my boyhood birds: Inspecting a coffee plant nursery and coming face-to-face with a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Nicaragua was almost as exciting as any birding experience.
On these family farms in Nicaragua I encountered mixed flocks of orioles and warblers, furtive Wood Thrushes without their spring song, and hummingbirds galore. Western birds such as Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that, in my boyhood, existed only in books were as casually present as the bird bounty of my youth.
There are now more than 100,000 acres of Bird Friendly coffee farms in Latin America. Birds & Beans buys coffee from Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, and Guatemala. But Nicaragua alone has more than 400 family farms cultivating 20,000 acres of Bird Friendly certified land. Birds & Beans Coffee, our Boston- and Toronto-based roaster and retailer, reports that sales have grown by more than 50 percent annually over the past five years.
Family farmers tend this land. Some families have grown coffee for more than 200 years. These organic farms carry the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's official Bird Friendly certification, which combines USDA organic standards with requirements for forest shade cover, multi-layered canopy, and the presence of epiphytes—plants that harmlessly grow on other plants.
By contrast, the “sun” coffee farms of big agricultural enterprise are eco-deserts, bereft of almost all the fecund wildlife found on our coffee farms. (There is no official certification for coffee labeled as shade-grown; indeed, some coffee with “shade-grown” on the packaging is grown under banana trees, to which artificial fertilizers and pesticides are heavily applied.)
The difference is real between large-scale sun coffee operations and our small, family-run farms. We have sponsored scientific surveys on the coffee farms in Nicaragua that supply Birds & Beans coffee. The results are astounding: In 10 days, researchers found more than 160 species of birds, including vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, tanagers and orioles.
The survey teams also found several warblers, including high numbers of Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, and Wilson's Warblers, as well as Golden-winged Warblers—a candidate for federal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In all, more than 35 species of neotropical migrants and more than 125 indigenous species of birds share the farms we covered. (Last year, the author Scott Weidensaul wrote on this blog about the abundance of birds on Nicaragua's Bird Friendly coffee farms.)
Sustainable farming is good for birds, farm families, workers and the environment we all share. If North American consumers continue the trend of increasing their consumption of organic food and beverages, we may be headed back to the better days of farms that support truly sustainable agriculture.
Maybe the best part of all this is that there are boys and girls out there today who can experience these farms and enjoy the same kind of exhilarating joy and freedom that going to the farm can deliver.
It's the kind of experience that the birds of my boyhood gave to me.
Editor's note: To purchase Bird-Friendly Coffee, visit Birds and Beans' website.
Bill Wilson is a consumer-marketing expert with more than 40 years of domestic and international experience. He is the Co-Founder and President of Birds & Beans Coffee LLC. Birds & Beans ® is the only coffee brand in the United States that solely roasts Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly®-certified beans, which are 100 percent shade-grown, USDA Organic, and Fair-Trade certified.