Farming Bird's Nests in the City

A coffee shop in the northeastern Malaysian city of Khota Bahru rings with the incessant chirping of what sounds like hundreds of birds although only 20 or so flit about. Asked about the mystery, a woman named Lim said “It's artificial. The bird nest farmers put the music on to attract the birds."

Far from the jungles of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, where swifts, tiny, fast-flying birds about the size of a sparrow, build their nests in the crevices and corners of caves in total darkness, Kota Bahru is turning into a city of birds. The sound is designed to attract swifts so that collectors can steal their nests, capitalizing on soaring demand for birds’ nest products.

In Kota Bahru, the capital of the northern state of Kelantan in peninsular Malaysia, creative businessmen have brought the swifts’ traditional breeding grounds to them – making it a lot easier to steal the nests than the traditional time-honored way, clambering up shaky bamboo ladders in total darkness in caves to “mine” the nests, fighting off giant crickets and snakes that can climb the walls to snap up chicks. A vast array of other creatures live in the caves, feeding on the guano that the birds have left in the caves for millennia and making it no fun for the nest farmers.

Here, however, it’s infinitely easier, and less hazardous. The houses that are turned into caves have their windows sealed to create a dark, cave-like environment. Nests are also farmed in Thailand in much the same way. Pigeon holes dot the outer walls. Some even have humidifiers to create the damp atmosphere that the birds like. Such buildings dot the town, some of them shophouses in the older parts of the city dating back to before the Japanese occupation from 1939 to 1945.


According to Ms Lim, these "bird houses" are popular, as their nests can fetch up to RM5,000 (US$1,532) per kg depending on the quality.

According to Ms Lim, these "bird houses" are popular, as their nests can fetch up to RM5,000 (US$1,532) per kg depending on the quality. The highest grades are curved like a bowl, and clean. The swifts build their nests from their saliva, which hardens into a bowl shape. In raw form, the nests are usually a mix of saliva, feathers and even droppings before they are cleaned. They are basically tasteless until mixed into soup. But as with many products in Asia, it is assumed that the saliva has a wide range of health-giving qualities – including, inevitably, acting as an aphrodisiac, in addition to clearing up skin problems, reinforcing the immune system, strengthening the lungs and improving the constitution. It is also believed to balance the mysterious force known as qi, or life force.

The Chinese have been eating birds’ nest soup at least since the T’ang Dynasty, AD 618-907, importing the nests mostly from the island of Borneo, but the Communists put a stop to it when they took over in 1949, considering consumption to be “extravagant.” That era is long gone. The fast-growing wealth of the Chinese has led to a surge in demand for the ingredients, with the country importing so much from tropical countries that it is threatening swift populations and has led the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, more popularly known as CITES, to consider adding swifts to its list of endangered species.

In Hong Kong, always a birds’ nest bastion, a bowl of bird's nest soup can cost from US$30 to US$100. A decent bowl of quality soup is about US$50. As China's economy has continued to boom, prices have skyrocketed but locals lament that they may be eating fake nests in a country where forgery is rampant. In the west, birds’ nest soup is often dried noodles rather than the real thing, but westerners don’t know the difference, by and large.

The high prices have generated a spate of burglaries in Kota Bahru. Hence, many have fortified security, including closed-circuit cameras (CCTV), barbed wire and heavy-duty locks. But still these don't deter determined thieves armed with industrial lock cutters.

Kota Bahru’s farmers, most of them Chinese, are secretive about the trade and how to generate it. Certainly, the birds can be fickle. If they come, they create a money machine that requires little maintenance. All is necessary is to harvest and clean the erstwhile cave. But turning a shophouse into a cave depends on location, luck and technology.

Some parts of the city attract more birds than others, the farmers say, although why is a mystery. "This is a Grade A area. See lots of birds flying around," Lim said. Property prices in such zones are higher. Some shophouses can cost more than RM1 million (US$306,000), an exorbitant amount considering rental income for the ground floor averages around RM2,000 (US$612).

To lure the birds, which breed in colonies, the sweet sounds of chirping females are played constantly on expensive high-fidelity speakers. According to one breeder, playing the wrong “music" will repel the birds. Residents around such farms have grown so accustomed to the sound that the constant chirps no longer irritate but have become familiar background noise.

But even setting up a pseudo-cave in a Grade A area and playing the right music may not guarantee that the birds will come. A degree of luck is involved as some hardly have any birds building nests. "Some of them just attract bats only," Lim said with a laugh.