Would you pay Big Bucks for a bowl of Bird saliva?

The price of edible birds’ nest is right up there with gold crumbs. Calia, Emporium, Melbourne CBD.
Image courtesy of Alpha via Flickr

$7.50 is what it’ll cost you for a single gram of dried bird saliva in Australia.

That’s thousands of dollars for a 1kg, and hundreds for a small bowl of its most common method of consumption – boiled into a lightly sweet soup with a slippery, jelly-like texture.
That is, if it makes it past Australia’s strict customs, quarantine and biosecurity laws.
But who on earth would pay that much to eat this?!

Caviar of the East

Well it’s been called the caviar of the east, a delicacy that much like fungus and fish eggs (aka truffles and caviar) costs a lot, for very little.

‘Edible birds’ nest’ is made by Swiftlets  that construct their nests out of their own viscous saliva they use like cement. Up in the caves they inhabit, there aren’t a lot of woody twigs or sticks to make the traditional kind of bird’s nests we’re familiar with, so they developed this unusual method to compensate. Check out this video here.

Called yànwō (燕窝) in Chinese, these edible birds’ nests have been consumed in traditional medicine for their health-enhancing properties, dating back as far as the Tang (618– 907 AD) dynasty. It’s most commonly known in China and south-east Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Phillipines where the largest populations of swiftlet birds are.

Just like other lucrative products, there are high-grade and low-grade nests (depending on species, location, and quality characterisation like purity and ash/debris content).  Of the 2 most highly sold types of bird’s nests, those of the White nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) are considered purer and higher quality than the Black nest swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus). The darker colour is due to more impurities.

Image courtesy of Tim Denholm via Wikimedia Commons

Does this actually have any scientifically proven health benefits?

Unlike caviar and truffles, the popularity of birds’ nest is not only about flavour or rarity. It’s mainly about enhancing health, a big selling factor in Asian countries for whom good health is a high priority (and historically a sign of wealth and prestige).

There are many studies claiming a range of effects, from anti-aging to anti-cancer and immunity-enhancing properties. But as with many traditional remedies, it’s hard to say whether there are in fact concrete correlations, or if its just a nutrient-rich superfood that can help to generally supplement health and deficiencies.

Rich with essential amino acids (protein), carbohydrate (high-fibre), and salts and minerals like calcium, sodium, iron and potassium, it’s been used as a treatment for malnutrition, to enhance metabolism, and to boost to the immune system i.e. sialic acid comprises 9% of birds’ nest, and aids immune system function by affecting the flow of mucus to flush away harmful microbes and foreign particles.

A ‘swift’ decline in sustainability?

Aerodramus fuciphagus sitting in a nest of its own saliva.
Image from National Geographic Wild via Youtube

Although they are edible and nutritious, they are still the nests of birds; made not for a mass economic market, but for their offspring.

Though not a reason to ignore bioethical considerations, these swiftlets are not endangered. And in many of the largest trading countries, while over-harvesting to meet high demand is a great concern that has caused certain species to abandon their natural habitats, collecting the nests is a tradition that has been around for a very long time. For example, in the Gomantong caves in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia, the local people have developed and maintained a harvesting approach that is sustainable.

I actually went to visit one of these caves (Simud Hitam) last year and found that it didn’t just house these famed swiftlets, but a whole, self-sustaining ecosystem. The caves are home to bats, huge, venomous centipedes (Scutigera coleoptrata), and large colonies of cockroaches and dung beetles that feed on the guano from the swiftlet and bat droppings (turning it into extremely fertile manure). Doesn’t sound all that nice, until you see the lush, green area at the back of the cave, with the sun shining down from an opening in the ceiling!

My visit to the Gomantong caves in 2017, Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia                                                                        

The Swiftlets and their nests (as well as the other wildlife in and around the Gomantong caves), are protected as part of the Sabah Forestry Department forest reserve. Anyone who harvests the bird’s nests must have official Government licenses to do so, as stated by the Wildlife Conservation Enactment (1997).

To disrupt the environment as little as possible, the licensed locals (who understand and respect the ecosystem) will collect the nests only twice a year, at very specific times; early in the breeding season before eggs have been laid (February – April) and then later when the young swiftlets have fully fledged (July – September). But they must ensure that the swiftlets have completely abandoned their nests before harvesting.

But of course, unfortunately not all regulations and rules are strictly adhered to universally.

In other areas and countries, harvesting birds nests from the wild has been banned. So, people have capitalised on swiftlet farming instead, turning old shop lots and buildings into artificial caves. But while making use of otherwise wasted urban infrastructure, this poses brand new controversies and bioethical concerns, not only for the swiftlets but also for the health and biosafety of the people living in these areas.

Would I go back to visit and see the cool, natural habitat? Yes (though I hated those cockroaches with a passion!)

Would I pay big bucks for a bowl of that saliva though, if I could get the same nutrients elsewhere? I think I’ll pass.