Have you ever wondered where bird's nests come from? Not all bird's nests are edible. The one we consume comes from a bird called the swiftlet, also known as the common swallow, and among all the swiftlet species discovered around the world, only three species create nests that we can eat. Don't just grab any nest you see in the trees - follow us to discover the differences in bird's nest sources!
EDIBLE BIRD’S NEST SPECIES
Just three species of swiftlets produce edible bird’s nest as we know it: aerodramus fuciphagus, aerodramus maximus, and hydrochous gigas. They are found in South-East Asia. Malaysia is home all three, although the aerodramus fuciphagus, or the white-nest swiftlet, and aerodramus maximus, or the black-nest swiftlet, are preferred for commercial purposes. The nests of the hydrochous gigas contain high amounts of impurities as gigas swiftlets build nests with their saliva and pieces of straw, making them more difficult to process with lower yield.
If you’ve shopped around for bird’s nests before, you might have realised there are differences in shape, colour, wholeness, and quality of bird’s nest. The most expensive bird’s nests are whole, boat-shaped bird’s nests that are red- or blood-coloured, which are considered the best bird’s nest, followed by bird’s nest pieces, bird’s nest corners, broken bits of bird’s nests, and finally bird’s nest biscuits. Bird’s nest is usually used to make bird’s nest drinks or soups, though culinary-adventurous folks have also used it in egg tarts and the like!
The natural habitat of the bird's nest-producing swiftlets are caves, especially caves in South-East Asia and East Asia. Malaysia is actually the second largest exporter of bird's nest in the world, behind Indonesia and ahead of Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, although Sri Lanka and South-West India also produce bird's nest in smaller quantities. Malaysia has identified the bird's nest industry as a "national treasure" and "valuable industry" to be developed under the 10th Malaysia Plan, the Economic Transformation Programme, and the National Agro-Food Policy.
Our bird's nests are primarily imported to Hong Kong and the United States of America, and from there, are distributed to other parts of the world. Malaysia focuses on the Chinese market in mainland China, who accounts for more than 90% of global bird's nest consumption. The precious delicacy has strong roots in centuries-old Chinese cuisine and is still persevering today.
CAVE vs HOUSE NESTS
Swiftlets tend to nest in caves. In Malaysia, these include the Gomantong Caves and the Madai Cave in Sabah, and the Niah Cave in Sarawak. The naturally-occurring bird's nests are difficult and dangerous to harvest. Swiftlets nest very high up, in crevices near the cave ceilings, and the harvesting of cave nests is a hazardous exercise that traditionally involves rattan-and-bamboo ladders, platforms, headlights, baskets, and 90-metre climbs with little protective gear. Cave nests are still being harvested today with more safety measures. The Wildlife Department of Malaysia controls the harvesting process of cave bird's nests to ensure the sustainability of this valuable industry, and harvesters often guard nesting caves to keep the habitat safe.
The high risks associated with cave nest harvesting, as well as the uncertain and short harvesting seasons followed by a labourious cleaning process, have made bird's nests a luxury commodity.
As demand for bird's nest continues to grow, enterprising individuals have developed ways to farm bird's nests in man-made structures. Nests harvested this way are called house nests, and are predominantly of the white-nest variety. Bare, rectangular structures with many small, circular holes, or even emptied shoplots, are used to attract nesting swiftlets with bird calls and a mimicry of their dark, tall cave environment.
Harvesting from swiftlet houses is much safer than climbing up cave walls, with the added benefits of proximity, ease of construction, quick proliferation possibilities, low initial costs and high returns on investment. Bird's nest farming is also regulated by the Bird's Nest Protocol, requiring certificates from the Health Ministry and the Veterinary Services Department to ensure the authenticity and quality of Malaysia's bird's nests through inspection, quarantine, and sanitary protocols. These swiftlet houses are spot checked by Ministry officials to enforce compliance to health and safety standards.
Thanks to new guidelines, swiftlet houses are now less commonly found in empty urban buildings, and instead are purpose-built structures in suburban or rural areas, largely in Kedah, Perak, Penang, Pahang, Johor, Negeri Sembilan, and Johor. If you see two-storey-tall structures in the middle of paddy fields, you've just identified a swiftlet house!
DOES SOURCE MATTER?
Sentiment is divided on this one. Just as how "Made in China" carries different connotations from "Made in Germany" or "Made in Japan", locational advantage can be a beneficial perception. Indonesia is much larger, with vast virgin terrain including natural caves, and so they are able to produce a high volume of quality cave bird's nests. However, some people believe that Malaysia's cleaner air means that Malaysian bird's nests are also cleaner and safer for consumption.
The process of harvesting cave nests is significantly more dangerous, which is why bird’s nests harvested from caves tend to be more expensive than house nests. Bird’s nest remains expensive partially also due to the economic forces of supply and demand. Swiftlets nest only twice a year, which means there are bountiful harvests only twice a year, while demand is sustained all year round. This is why your bird’s nest drink or soup costs so much.
GeGebirdnest adopts a sustainable business model by using Malaysian house bird's nest in our bottled bird’s nest drinks: it has a smaller carbon footprint, a good reputation, and it supports our local Malaysian bird's nest production industry, one that is among the biggest in the world. Our bird's nest drinks are made from house nests farmed primarily in the northern region of peninsular Malaysia. "Made in Malaysia" is also a good thing!