The tiny swiftlet has become the golden goose in one Thai town, where pimped-out birdhouses rule the roost
The people of Pak Phanang live in small houses and low-rise apartment blocks squeezed in between monolithic birdhouses. In the pink skies of dusk, hundreds of thousands of sparrow-sized birds pepper the sky, filling the air with twittering. For this small town, set 600 kilometres south of Bangkok, is not just a colony for guano-covered bird fanatics, it is part of what is reported to be a multibillion-dollar industry.
The birds, called swiftlets, are “tiny insectivorous birds that are distributed from the Indian Ocean, throughout Southeast Asia and north Australia to the Pacific,” according to Dr Shun Wan Chan, a biologist from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. But it’s not the birds that are eaten. Or their eggs. It’s their nests.
The swiftlet, which is part of the swift family, is thought to have developed among the craggy, sea-splashed caves of Southeast Asia – areas where there were no twigs, no grass and no soft earth to burrow into. Somewhere along the evolutionary road, male swiftlets started hocking up reams of saliva that dried to form tiny nests attached to cavern walls. Their circumstances changed when, during the T’ang dynasty in China (618 – 907CE), doctors started boiling bird’s nests into a globular soup and feeding it to sick clients. The practice continues to this day.
“Bird’s nest soup is prescribed as a tonic to build up the body’s natural reserves of strength and support the immune system,” said Spencer Ames, an acupuncturist and Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) specialist. “Particularly it works on respiration and helps with asthma, chronic cough and other lung disorders,” he continued. “It’s poetically linked with the bird’s singing capacities; CTM relates that to having vital lungs.”
Scientific analyses of edible nests have found them to typically contain 60% protein, 20% carbohydrate with the rest a combination of fats, amino acids and minerals, probably absorbed from the cave walls on which they are constructed. While there has been speculation on the possible benefits of some of these ingredients, the claims of CTM have yet to be proven.
Still, the demand for edible nests remains high. So much so that they have been described as ‘the caviar of the East’. It’s a strange luxury food – tasteless, with a strange, phlegmy texture.
Hunger for edible nests has, however, caused wild populations of swiftlets to decline. According to online reports and interviews with local producers, a wild male bird can build up to three nests a season, with gatherers harvesting two nests and leaving a third for breeding. But by the time the birds have constructed a third nest, they can be so stressed that breeding is less successful, and there are reports of some harvesters taking the third nests too, tipping chicks and eggs onto the cave floor.
The situation became so worrisome that, in 1994, a motion was proposed by Italy to protect the species under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The motion was opposed by Southeast Asian countries enjoying the benefits of supplying the lucrative industry.
Thankfully, recent years have seen the rise of swiftlet hotels. It has been a boom industry of late and nowhere is this more apparent than in Pak Phanang. This small town of 15,000 residents is home to about 200 birdhouses – windowless concrete towers up to eight stories high. “This area has always had a lot of swiftlets because of the nearby mangrove forests where they like to feed,” said Aoy Reich, a delicate, almost birdlike woman and owner of two giant eight-storey birdhouses.
Reich is at the top of what has become a very competitive business, in which Thai producers export to Hong Kong companies for onward sales in China. They also sell to Thai companies, which distribute to drinks firms, and Vietnamese companies supplying a demand for bird nest drinks and infused beauty products.
“I have about 100,000 birds nesting in my two houses,” said Reich. “The interior of buildings replicates the cave environment – the humidity is 28 – 30% and it is very dark.” She motioned to various
industry awards on the mantel of her luxury wood-panelled office. “I’m successful because my birds are very loyal.”
Reich and other swiftlet rustlers compete for the birds’ favour by pimping their birdhouses in order to make them the equivalent of a swiftlet five-star hotel. Luxury accommodation for the average swiflet is a warm festering cave festooned with bird faeces. House owners will often buy-in the stinkiest guano from suppliers in Malaysia to attract the birds.
Swiftlet farming has spread all over Southeast Asia. Indonesia has the largest number of houses, an estimated 100,000, according to the South China Morning Post, followed by Malaysia and Thailand. Cambodia has also caught on with swiftlet hotels popping up around the southerly town of Kampot.
Pak Harry, an enthusiast from Malaysia, runs a business offering advice to budding swiftlet rustlers via Skype, ebooks and consultations. “The most common mistake is not making the houses dark enough,” he said. Sound is another key factor. Owners of new houses play recordings of swiftlet mating calls in order to lure the birds inside.
“The sound is a marketing tool for the birds,” said Harry. “If you are using old speakers the birds might not like it, so I advise clients to buy the best recordings and play them on the highest quality speakers. I also promote using multiple sounds: running four or five different recordings at different locations in the house.”
The explosion of birdhouses has led old hands such as Reich to bemoan the loss of a golden era. “Ten years ago I could sell a kilo of top-grade nests for THB100,000 (about $3,000),” she said. “But now I’m lucky to get THB50,000 (about $1,500).”
On top of that the market is only just recovering from a 2011 health scare when excessive concentrations of nitrates were found in some nests. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, some suppliers had started using “chemical nitrate to turn white nests orange or red, colours that usually indicate a particularly rare specimen found only in specific caves.”
Despite its problems, the swiftlet business has left an indelible mark on many communities in Southeast Asia, not least Pak Phanang. On any given road, shops sell swiftlet accessories, boxes of medical-grade nests or anti-ageing serums boasting rejuvenating nests as their main ingredient.
Somsak and Niramon Monkaew are a husband and wife from Pak Phanang who recently converted the top two floors of their building to accommodate a growing population of birds.
“This was the best idea my husband has had in a long time,” said Niramon, waving around a bottle of edible nest drink. “We do it together as a family and we’re very happy because we have an extra income.”
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