On my calendar, there really isn’t a bad day for chocolate, but today is even better – December 16 is National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day. I’m a personal fan of nuts, pretzels, nougats, raisins, cakes, mints, candied orange rind, popcorn, and potato chips with that rich, decadent coating, but I’d be open to trying other options as well. But let’s keep it bird-friendly!
What Is Bird-Friendly Chocolate?
Chocolate is produced from the cacao bean (Theobroma cacao). Cacao trees are tropical and require rich soil and plenty of moisture for the largest, healthiest crop, and these trees are confined to within 20 degrees of latitude of the Equator. The majority of the world’s cocoa is produced in the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru – all of which are also among the most bird-diverse countries.
There are two ways to grow cacao trees…
- Monoculture: This practice is growing a single crop (cacao) in each field, which allows more densely packed crops and faster harvesting. Monoculture crops generally have higher yields for faster profits, but the soil chemistry is dramatically altered by the single crop, so future crops must rely heavily on chemical fertilizers. Because the rainforest has been cleared, native wildlife that would normally prey on insects, including birds, moves to different areas. This leads to greater pesticide use on monoculture crops, and the toxins from so much chemical use can build up in the food chain, endangering birds and other wildlife.
- Shade-Grown: Shade-grown agriculture is growing crops in a mixed field, preserving as much native rainforest canopy as possible to provide shade and moisture. This cultivation relies on leaf litter as natural compost, and birds, bats, and reptiles serve as natural pest control. These crops generally have lower yields, but can be mixed to increase production by growing cacao trees alongside bananas, avocados, coffee, and similar produce simultaneously. This provides staggered harvests and steadier income, but more labor is needed since machinery is less efficient at harvesting mixed fields.
While each type of agriculture has pros and cons, the choice for birds is obvious: shade-grown chocolate preserves habitat, reduces chemical use, and allows for greater bird diversity.
Finding Bird-Friendly Chocolate
It can be difficult to find bird-friendly chocolate. Products labeled as bird-friendly or shade-grown are best, though other labels such as fair trade and organically grown are still better than mass produced, commercially harvested chocolate. Because of the greater labor necessary for bird-friendly chocolate and the lower yields from shade-grown fields, this chocolate is generally more expensive, but many aficionados agree that it is often more flavorful, making the higher price worthwhile.
Retailers who often carry bird-friendly chocolate include organic markets and grocers who promote sustainable practices, though exact products vary by location. Many wild bird stores may offer a limited selection of chocolates as a gift item, and gourmet shops may have also have some bird-friendly choices. Some offer only chocolate bars, while others may have truffles, cocoa powder, syrup, or drinking chocolates available.
Birders who opt for bird-friendly chocolate can not only enjoy the treat today (and every day!), but will enjoy knowing their chocolate is also benefiting birds.