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Cover story : 25 Mar 06 Vol. 22 No. 24
By Daisy

Bird's nests? Bird's saliva?
Yes, but there's something more about it that you may not know before. Have you ever wondered why people, especially the Chinese are fond of bird's nests? And why are they so expensive? A kilo of unprocessed raw bird's nests costs 100,000-120,000 baht (1USD = around 40 baht).

Since the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the Chinese have regarded bird's nest soup the supreme delicacy with rich medicinal properties. They drink it as a tonic to boost the function of the lungs. Here, Thaiways is introducing to you some interesting information about bird's nests.
Pacific Swift

From which species of swift do we get the edible bird's nests?

There are three species of swifts in Thailand that produce edible nests viz. the Edible-nest Swiftlet, Pacific Swift and Black-nest Swiftlet. The nests of the first two species are white while those of the last are black with feathers, dust and droppings mixed together, and are considered of low quality. Even though most bird's nests in Thailand are products of Edible-nest Swiftlets, in the east of Thailand, especially in Trat Province, most nests harvested are of Pacific Swifts.

Edible-nest Swiftlet

The appearances of nests

Edible-nest Swiftlets and Pacific Swifts build their white nests in the form of a half cup. The nests are constructed by glutinous strands of starch-like saliva of the birds. Sometimes the nests are mixed with their feathers.

Black-nest Swiftlet

Black-nest Swiftlets build larger nests when compared with the Edible-nest Swiftlets and the Pacific Swifts. These birds construct nests with their feathers which are conjoined with their saliva.
All species build their nests on the ledges of limestone caves or in the cracks of granite mountains, the height of which is more than 10 metres. Inside these caves, the air usually has high humidity.

The first harvest begins in March which corresponds with the mating season. The female birds will construct the nests for laying eggs. They build the nests during the night and go looking for food during the day. It will take 30-35 days to finish a nest. Thus, the excellent opportunity for the collectors to harvest the nests is by day when the mother birds are not in the cave. The harvest must be done before they lay eggs. Otherwise, the eggs will be damaged. And as a result, the female birds will no longer lay eggs for the rest of the year. However, if the collectors collect the nests too soon, the quality of the nests will not meet standard because they have not been fully developed.

The difficult and risky harvesting is
a reason why bird's nests are expensive.

When they see the nests disappeared, the mother-to-be birds, out of their instinct to maintain their species, will build a second nest. That is why after the first harvest, the collector will wait one month for the birds to construct a new nest. After the second nests are harvested, another three months will be allowed to pass before the third nests are ready for harvesting for the last time of the year in August.

The third nests are the nest where the baby birds live and grow. The reason to wait for three months is to allow time for the baby birds to hatch out of the eggs and to grow up strong enough to fly and forage. The mother birds will spend one month to incubate. After the third nests were harvested, the cave will be isolated until the next year.

Bird's nests packed for distribution

Levels of bird's nests quality
The expensive high-quality nests are the first nests harvested for the first time in the harvesting season. The bird's nests collected during this time are white and less contaminated. The third nests, are more dirty because they are harvested after the baby birds have grown up and left the nests. These nests need to be cleaned up more than the earlier ones.

The prices of the first nests are very high. A kilo of unprocessed nests costs 100,000-120,000 baht, while that of the third nests are lower. In former times, only the emperors or the well-to-do would be able to taste the genuine bird's nests. However, if we take into consideration the danger one must face when climbing to get a bird's nest, the prices are reasonable.

Ethics of the bird's nest concessionaires
The operators must strictly hold on to the conservation principles which aim to sustainably make the most of bird's nests. That is to utilize them for the longest possible period of time and produce the least waste. Harvesting the nests especially for the third time means that although the nests are of poor quality, they had better be collected than be allowed to decay since the baby birds have already left the nests. Concessionaires must not break the rules of birds's nest harvesting because it will lead to devastation.

Beliefs about reddish brown nests
It is believed that the bird's nests of reddish brown colour are produced by the mother birds who have to rebuild the nests for several times until their saliva becomes blood. The reddish brown bird's nests thus, are rated as the supreme delicacy rich in nutritions which gourmets will pay any costs to taste them.

Recently, many researchers have found that what causes the reddish brown colour is the chemical reaction among oxygen, iron and humidity which results in rust. Humidity also stimulates the rust to be absorbed into the nest making them reddish brown. There are actually no more nutritions in this kind of nests than in the others.

Medicinal properties
Bird's nests are believed to act as a tonic for the lungs and can help keep the function of respiratory system homeostatic. They are also excellent for boosting the blood circulation system for children, patients in recovering stage, women after delivery and the old. Bird's nest soup is praised as a superb tonic so full of benefits that it is prohibited to add cooking oil or other seasonings to it.

A research studying the bird's nest has found that it can help stimulate the process of the cell formation as well. In addition, the scientists of Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research (TISTR) have found that the following chemical compounds are contained in the bird's nest:
Water 5.11%, Protein 60.9%, Calcium 0.85%, Potassium 0.05%, Phosphorus 0.03%.

Besides, in 1963, there was an overseas study about bird's nests. It indicated that the chemical compounds extracted from bird's nests effectively prohibited the process of Haemagglutination which caused the common cold and influenza.

Bird's nest sources in Thailand
In Thailand, the southern region, including especially Krabi, Phuket and Nakhon Si Thammarat, is the largest area producing bird's nests. In addition, there is another producing source in the eastern provinces such as Rayong and Trat.

How to cook bird's nests
1.Clean the nests in fresh water two to three times. Soak them in water for 1-2 hours until they are swollen. Then use forceps to remove the impurities. After that, wash them for another two times. Then, take bird's nests out of the water and leave them to drip.
2. Stew bird's nests in a pot, using low heat. The water in the pot must cover every part of the bird's nests. After stewing for 15 minutes, add rock sugar. Continue stewing it for an hour.
3. Another way to cook bird's nest is just heat it in water until it is boiling. Then add sugar and remove the heat.
4. Cleaned or cooked bird's nest should be kept in a refrigerator.
If you are in Bangkok, it is very convenient to try bird's nest soup. Most restaurants in Chinatown on Yaowarat Road serve it. And if you are in other major tourist provinces such as Phuket, you can order bird's nest soup at almost any restaurants.

Special thanks to A.P.B. Phuket Bird's Nest for giving Thaiways useful information and photos.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language .

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