On my first trip to the rural north of Sarawak in preparation for my PhD research, I stopped over in a few longhouses in the Long Lama area, Long Sungai Dua / Daleh Long Pelutan, Long Laput. In one of them, the owner of the local cave was in the process of packaging birds nest for shipment to the dealer in the city. The birds nests in the region have been a source of wealth to the traditional owners of the cave for many generations, as this article in the star suggests.
On this day, we found hundreds of nests spread out on a few tables. Some workers packaged the nests into bunches to be weighed. The nests would need further processing and cleaning, which takes part at the buyer. A small amount of birds nest then makes it into products such as soups, soft drinks etc.
Before coming to Sarawak I had thought that edible bird’s nests were a myth. There are, indeed, two species of cave swiftlet which produce edible nests, the White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) and the Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus). The former’s nests are quite neat and require little cleaning, which can be seen in these photographs. The latter’s nests contain a percentage of other material such as moss and sticks.
Harvesting these nests is difficult and dangerous work. The swiftlets build their nests in limestone caves, and traditional harvesting involve tall bamboo scaffolds on which workers climb up to the cave ceilings. Accidents are common, and few safety precautions exist.
More birds nests ready for shipment
Swiftlet nests have been harvested in Borneo for the Chinese market for centuries
A batch of birdsnests
Swiftlet chicks, not of the edible nest variety
More swiftlet chicks on the cave wall
Other cave dwellers are also interested in the nests, but more because of their content of chicks. Snakes such as this cave racer (Orthriophis taeniurus grabowskyi) mostly eat bats though.