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Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham

Bird Conservation
Spit and Demolish

The swiftlet, a cave-dwelling bird found in Southeast Asia, is being eaten out of house and home—literally. Its nest is a small, gluey cup of its own dried saliva that sticks to cave walls and ceilings. It is also the main ingredient in bird’s nest soup, a dish relished by gourmands in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Southeast Asian communities across the United States. Furthermore, in China, where the economy is booming, untold millions like to celebrate their good fortune with this reputed immune booster, which is considered “the caviar of the East” and which, like caviar, is being smuggled to meet the demands of the luxury food market.

That demand has spawned a black market that is destroying populations of the sparrowlike bird. Malaysian caves that held 500,000 birds in 1993 held just 180,000 in 1997. In Thailand locals report spotting only a third of the nests they did a decade ago. “It has been absolutely devastating,” says Joseph Hobbs, a geography professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and an expert on edible nests in Malaysia. “People are literally climbing over themselves,” he says, “because the nests are so valuable now.”

Swiftlet nests can be legally collected twice a year in most of the countries where the birds live, although only after the chicks are hatched and fledged. (The swiftlets need about 45 days to spit themselves a new nest.) But poachers obtain them without regard for limits, often knocking the chicks and eggs to the ground and sometimes preventing the birds from breeding at all. The ensuing scarcity contributes to the skyrocketing prices—up to $5,000 a pound—and fuels demand. “It’s a positive feedback loop that is completely out of control,” says Hobbs.

Some researchers believe the high prices may be the swiftlets’ salvation. In Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, people are converting the upper stories of their houses into fashionable, if messy, cavelike dens, complete with stereos that play birdsongs meant to attract breeding swiftlets. Those who successfully attract the birds can make as much as $10,000 a month selling nests, which certainly motivates them to maintain the populations. “Both bird and man are benefiting from this type of coexistence,” says Massimo Marcone, a food scientist at Ontario’s University of Guelph and the author of a recent book on bizarre foods called In Bad Taste? The Adventures and Science Behind Food Delicacies. When swiftlet chicks fledge, he points out, the adults leave the nest and don’t come back until they are ready to build another nest and lay eggs.

Swiftlets are resilient, and although they’re listed as threatened by the World Conservation Union, regulations to protect them are often not enforced, and some locations could see local extinctions, says Hobbs. The potential profits simply overwhelm any incentive to punish poachers, he says. “The price of the product correlates to the scarcity of the nests.”—Rebecca Zerzan

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