The Hamilton Spectator

Luxury Birdhouses, No Spiders Allowed


PERAPAKAN, Indonesia — With no windows, the gloomy, gray building looming four stories above the rice fields in a remote village in Indonesian Borneo resembles nothing more than a prison.

Hundreds of similar concrete structures, with small holes for ventilatio­n, tower over shops and homes all along Borneo’s northweste­rn coast. These buildings are for swiftlets, which build their nests inside.

Zulkibli, 56, a government worker who built his giant birdhouse in Perapakan in 2010, supplement­s his income by harvesting the swiftlets’ nests and selling them to China.

The nests, made from the birds’ saliva, are the key ingredient in bird’s nest soup, an expensive delicacy believed by many Chinese to have health benefits.

Swiftlets usually make their nests in coastal caves, where harvesting them can be hazardous work. The key to attracting the birds to a manmade home, Mr. Zulkibli said, is treating them like “rich humans” and guaranteei­ng their comfort and safety. Mr. Zulkibli, like many Indonesian­s, goes by one name.

“Comfort, by regulating the temperatur­e,” he said. “Safety, by keeping pests and predators away. The swiftlet house must be really clean. They don’t even like spiders.”

Government officials say Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of swiftlet nests.

Over the past decade, so many property owners were eager to cash in that the number of birdhouses here jumped fivefold, Mr. Zulkibli said.

Swiftlets are fast-flying, insect-eating birds that can cover vast distances in a day, using echolocati­on to navigate in lowlight environmen­ts.

With the region’s glut of birdhouses, many now have vacancies. “The birds have many choices,” Mr. Zulkibli said.

The small, delicate nests are harvested with a specialize­d tool similar to a paint scraper and then cleaned. Intact white nests bring the best prices.

The theft of birds nests is a common problem. Mr. Zulkibli said his birdhouse has been burgled 20 times.

Birdhouse owners say that they wait until the fledglings have left the nest before they harvest and that neither the parents nor their babies are harmed.

Inside Mr. Zulkibli’s 15-meter-high birdhouse, wooden joists crisscross the ceilings, creating places for birds to make their nests. Each ventilatio­n hole is covered with mesh to keep out vermin and is connected to a short, curving pipe that blocks the light, helping replicate a cave’s gloom.

The coastal city of Singkawang serves as a trading center where businessme­n buy nests and ship them to the capital, Jakarta, for export.

Dozens of large birdhouses still dot Singkawang. But as its human population has swelled to 250,000, fewer swiftlets have come into the city.

On Singkawang’s outskirts, a farmer, Suhardi, 52, built his birdhouse in 2000. For many years, the birds were plentiful and his business was profitable.

At its peak, he said, he could produce 10 kilograms of nests a month, which he could sell for $20,000 — huge income for an Indonesian farmer. Now, if he harvests about 1.5 kilograms a month and sells it for $1,500, he considers himself fortunate.

He does not blame the overbuildi­ng of birdhouses so much as climate change and the cutting of nearby jungle to make way for palm oil plantation­s, which wrecked the ecosystem the birds relied on for food.

“The earth is getting hotter, and the sun’s intensity is scorching hot,” Mr. Suhardi said. “In the past, there were forests to cool down the heat. And with the forest disappeari­ng, their food source is also gone.”

 ?? ?? People in Borneo build concrete birdhouses for swiftlets, whose nests are the key ingredient in bird’s nest soup, a Chinese delicacy.
People in Borneo build concrete birdhouses for swiftlets, whose nests are the key ingredient in bird’s nest soup, a Chinese delicacy.

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