Bird-nest Soup, Anyone?
by Therese Park


Longevity and good health is a common desire for all, especially among the older generation. But what do you do to stay young and healthy? Are you spending money on exercise machines, health club memberships, and workout-videos? Have you thought about drinking a potion made of deer and elk antlers and bird-nest soup, like many Asians do?

Though unknown to most Americans, traditional Chinese medical doctors have been using bird-nests for centuries to treat respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis, to rejuvenate skin, and to boost energy for both young and old. Bird nests have been a most “wanted” gift for centuries among the older generation in Asia.

The birds known as chimney swifts here in North America have famous cousins known as swiftlets in the southeastern Asian countries. They live in deep caves or under the roofs of coves along the seashores of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, and the Philippines and their nests have been well-loved by Chinese for 1,500 years. They measure about the size of common sparrows, except they have shorter bills, a slender body, and longer tails. They could fly about 80-100 mph, much faster than most average birds, and have a wide wingspan close to that of pigeons. They build nests with their glue-like saliva and cement them on cave walls or inside a tunnel, far away from their predators.

Bird nests are a multi-million dollar industry in Asia. Indonesia alone ships 80-100 tons of nests to Hong Kong, while Malaysia exports only ten tons of what they consider the “finest” on the market. Interestingly enough, the bird's nest industry is never threatened by a global economic crisis. In fact, during the past 30 years, the price of bird nest has sky rocketed. In 1975 a kilogram was sold for $10.00 in Hong Kong, but in 1995, it was $400.00, and then in 2002, it was $1,600. This is a huge profit for southeast Asian countries that depend on foreign exchange.

The Hong-Kong Chinese eat more than 100 tons of bird-nests each year, nearly 60% of the world's supply. The Chinese communities in North America consume 30 plus tons, but the Mainland Chinese buy only 10 tons, 10% of what Hong Kong Chinese consume. [During Mao Ze-Dong's regime between 1949-1976, bird-nest soup was considered a “luxury” and law prohibited buying and selling of nests. It was the dark era when living in an elegant home was considered “bourgeois mentality” and the government allowed looters to burn and destroy countless homes.]

Today, a bowl of bird-nest soup in a Hong Kong restaurant sells for $60.00 or more. Most of the common nest soup is made with chicken bullion, but with a bit more money, one can get a fancier kind of soup known as “Phoenix Swallowing the Swallow,” clear consommé extracted from a chicken impregnated with bird nests and served in a porcelain pot.

There are three kinds of bird nests– white, orange-yellow, and black. “White Nests” are more expensive, purer in quality, and have higher nutritional value than the other two kinds, which contain color pigments from the iron oxide of cave-walls and are believed to give an impure taste.

According to Yun-Cheung Kong, professor of biochemistry in the Chinese University in Hong-Kong, the trade of swiftlets' nests began in China during the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) Some time during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), an admiral named Cheng He introduced foreign nests to the Imperial court of China. He traveled throughout Southeast Asia one year and brought back samples of many different kinds of nests and presented them to the Imperial Court. Dr. Kong believes that the supply in China had been exhausted before foreign nests were imported. In the late 17th century, four million nests (125,000 pounds) passed through the port of Batavia, now Jakarta.

Nest-harvesting isn't an easy job for anyone. It takes skills and experience. During the peak season between February and May each year, gatherers clamber up trellises of bamboo and vines at sunrise, only descending at sundown. To keep their hands firmly on the trellises or bamboo scaffoldings, some times as high as 200-300 feet from the cave floor, they balance torchlight between their teeth to look for what they call “White Gold.” Their only tool is the three-pronged instrument called rada, which they believe that gods of the cave approved of and anointed. No harvesters would attempt to touch nests without rada.

One harvester can collect as many as 50 or 60 nests a day. Sometimes, like mountain climbers, the harvesters hammer metal poles into rocks and boulders to attach themselves to the cave walls. Many have died when a rotted bamboo pole or a boulder gave in under their weight, but such accidents never discouraged the surviving harvesters.

There are taboos among the nest-gatherers: One must not make noises when he is on the job, for noises disturb the cave-spirits and they would punish him; he should never sit on the knot of lianas where the scaffolding is secured, for it is a sacred spot held together by the gods; uttering such words as “blood” or “falling” or “death” or “fear” is the same as cursing the cave-spirits.

Swiftlets lose their homes three times a season. When their first nests are stolen, they rebuild them quickly on the same spots, only to lose them again even before they can produce their eggs. But when the third nests are built, most harvesters wait until the young birds are raised and gone, but some ruthless ones destroy them anyway, spilling eggs and sending the fledglings to the floor.

Many scientists, including Dr. Kong, are worried about rapidly disappearing swiftlets. The walls in some caves are completely abandoned; only the rotted bamboo scaffoldings remind nest-harvesters of what they have destroyed. But such a reminder doesn't stop the harvesters from following the birds to their new homes, for “White Gold” is too precious for them.

As Zoologist Kang Nee of the National University of Singapore believes the harvest cycles of swiftlets' nests must coordinate with the birds breeding patterns before they become extinct. Until this is done, the number of swiftlets will rapidly shrink while the price of nests will keep soaring.

For the sake of swiftlets, I hope the general American public doesn't discover Bird-nest Soup at any time soon.

February 8, 2005