To help ward off the chill, the bundled-up participants sipped free cups of coffee, from Birds & Beans LLC. The coffee roaster, based in Byfield, Massachusetts, near Boston, exclusively sells organic, Fair Trade beans that are also certified as "bird-friendly" by the federal Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The company's marketing director chatted with the birders about the merits of the label and sent them each home with a small sample bag of their coffee, which is also certified as organic and Fair Trade.
It may sound like a painstaking way to build a business, but as many a small food entrepreneur has learned, educating consumers is half the battle, particularly when it comes to a product with a social or environmental mission. And, often, that's best done through sampling.
"We're trying to meet people face to face," says the company's cofounder and president Bill Wilson, a lifelong birder and a serial entrepreneur, who is worried about the precipitous decline in migratory bird populations. "It's one person, one small group of people, and one small organization at a time."
About 10 years ago, Wilson first came across the Smithsonian's bird-friendly certification program and wondered why more people didn't know about it. He decided to meld his passions for business and bird-watching by starting a 'bird-friendly' coffee company in 2008.
He and his partner, Scott Weidensaul, licensed the name Birds & Beans from a Toronto business that was already selling certified bird-friendly coffee in Canada, in exchange for some equity in their new venture, and they contracted with Wicked Joe, a Maine coffee roaster, to roast their beans, also in return for equity.
The Smithsonian's certification program assures that the coffee beans are shade-grown, produced under a canopy of native trees that provide important habitats for migrating birds, and they must also pass organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture .
Why does this matter?
"We've seen some pretty alarming declines over the last 40 years," ornithologist Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian center, tells me. Wood thrushes, once common in the U.S. have declined by more than 65%; warbler populations are down by 40%. Rusty blackbird populations have plunged by 90%.
"We don't know why and it's hard to find the smoking gun in many of these cases. What we're forced to do at this stage is look at what's changing," Marra adds.
Climate change, tall buildings, marauding cats, development and shifting agricultural practices are all taking their toll on fragile bird populations. And more large coffee growers are planting "sun" coffee in vast open fields that offer no biodiversity, use excessive water and numerous pesticides that threaten both farmworker health and the health of consumers.
"What we can say is coffee is one of the larges agricultural commodities traded around the world, and an enormous part of the landscape in the tropics," Marra says. "It can be grown in a situation that is not good for the wildlife, or it can be grown in a feel-good, bird-friendly way."
The Smithsonian recently began a major push to help increase awareness among large employers, retailers and institutions. Marra highlights to such groups the benefits beyond providing bird habitats: Certified farms use less water because of the shade cover and they're certified organic -- so they're healthier for humans too.
The Smithsonian presently certifies about 35 farms around the world, producing some 10 million pounds of coffee a year. (A number of these farms represent multiple growers.) Marra says many more farms practice bird-friendly farming but don't use the certification label. It will take more consumer demand to spur them to action, he says.
Birds & Beans is just one of the coffee roasters the Smithsonian works with. They include Caffee Ibis Coffee Roasting, based in Logan, Utah, and Thornton, Colorado-based Allegro Coffee Growers, which sells its bird-friendly Early Bird Blend at Whole Foods.
As Wilson sees it, growing competition is a good thing because that means the category is getting more established.Last year, Birds & Beans U.S. had revenue of about $1.5 million. Sales are now growing about 25% a year. The company donates 5% of its revenue to its conservation partners.
But it has taken the company much longer to build a market than Wilson had expected. "The question we haven’t successfully answered is how do we get the word out more broadly and how do we get this to catch fire," Wilson tells me.
In a personal taste test, I found the two roasts I sampled comparable to some of the best specialty coffee I've purchased without the bird-friendly label. But as anyone who has lingered at the supermarket coffee shelf knows, the options are confusing. There's shade-grown, organic and Fair Trade-certified, which assures just treatment of workers and farmers and requires some sustainable practices. While organic and shade-grown coffee farms may also benefit birds and are better choices for consumers than nonorganic and sun-grown coffee, the Smithsonian's bird-friendly certification is the gold standard in conservation circles.
Still, the market for bird-friendly coffee is tiny in the scheme of things. About 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every year. In 2012, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology estimated less than 1 percent of coffee sold in the U.S. carried the bird-friendly certification.
Despite the marketing challenges, Wilson says Birds & Beans is finally beginning to see the payoff from its strategy of partnering with conservation organizations and academics and sampling its coffee at events. Their partners include ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury, a professor at York University in Toronto, and the Cornell lab of Ornithology. In June 2013, Birds & Beans launched a program with the American bird Conservancy to help coffee farmers in Latin America achieve certification. The company is also acting as one of the sponsors of the North American Ornithological Conference in August.
Birds & Beans distributes its coffee through 127 retail outlets, including coops, bird stores, natural foods stores and nature center stores, but Wilson has been less successful getting into traditional supermarkets, where single-serve coffee cups are taking up more and more shelf space, and price points are critical. Its ecommerce sales include numerous coffee clubs, local cooperatives where people order together and save on shipping costs.
Encouragingly, Birds & Beans boasts an 80% retention rate for those online customers, who account for about a third of sales.
"With something that's a little bit complicated, you've got to be constantly putting out information that educates the consumer, and if you do it long enough and honestly, eventually they'll come to you," Wilson says.
Robin D. Schatz is the health care editor at Crain's New York Business and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @Robin_Schatz. Read her Forbes stories here.