April 12, 2024

5-star birdhouses for picky but precious guests: nesting swifts

Without windows, the gloomy, gray building that looms four stories above the rice fields in a remote village in Indonesian Borneo looks like nothing more than a prison.

Hundreds of similar concrete structures, dotted with tiny holes for ventilation, tower over village shops and houses along Borneo’s northwestern coast.

But these buildings are not for people. They’re for the birds. In particular the swift, which builds its nests inside.

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

The nests, made from the birds’ saliva, are the main ingredient in bird’s nest soup, an expensive delicacy that many Chinese believe has health benefits.

Left to their own devices, swifts usually make their nests in coastal caves, where harvesting them can be dangerous work. The key to attracting the birds to a man-made home, Mr Zulkibli said, is treating them like “rich people” and ensuring their comfort and safety. Mr Zulkibli, like many Indonesians, has one name.

“Comfort, by regulating the temperature,” he said. “Safety, by keeping vermin and predators at bay. The Swiftlet House must be really clean. They don’t even like spiders.”

Government officials say Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of swift nests. Sambas Regency, the county-sized region of West Kalimantan province where Perapakan is located, is a major producer, with the birds thriving in the swampy coastal areas rich in insects.

The bird nesting industry can be lucrative. Over the past decade, so many property owners in this sparsely populated area of ​​coconut palms and banana trees were eager to make money that the number of birdhouses here increased fivefold, Mr. Zulkibli said.

In a twist on apartment conversions, some people have even remodeled the top floors of their homes – darkening windows and drilling ventilation holes – to make them habitable for swifts.

Swifts are fast-flying, insectivorous birds that can fly great distances in a day, using echolocation to navigate in low-light environments. They build as many as three nests a year, Mr Zulkibli said, regularly changing nest sites.

Due to the abundance of birdhouses in the region, there are now many vacancies.

“The birds have a lot of choice,” Mr Zulkibli said.

So owners compete to attract the swifts by playing recordings of the clicking sounds they make during their echolocation.

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

Theft of bird nests is a common problem. Mr Zulkibli said his birdhouse had been broken into 20 times, with the thieves sometimes breaking through the concrete walls.

Birdhouse owners say they wait until the young birds have left the nest before harvesting and that neither the parents nor their babies are harmed. But sometimes burglars steal the nests prematurely, killing the young.

In Mr Zulkibli’s 15-metre-high birdhouse, wooden beams criss-cross the ceilings, creating places for birds to nest. Each vent is covered with mesh to keep out pests and is connected to a short, curved pipe that blocks light, simulating the gloom of a cave. A pond on the ground floor cools the building and gives the birds a place to bathe.

The swifts enter at high speed through a rectangular opening at the top and reach the lower levels through 2.5 by 3 meter holes in each floor.

Although the swifts provide an income, Mr Zulkibli said he, like his parents, was passionate about birds. They raised free-range pigeons and never served poultry for food.

“We never ate duck or anything that could fly,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I want to protect the birds. Many birds build their nests around my house, perhaps because they feel safe with me.”

Once the swifts settled in their nest, he said, he allowed them to pet them.

Just south of Sambas Regency, the coastal city of Singkawang was once a major nest producer. But today it suffers from the local version of empty nest syndrome.

Known for its large ethnic Chinese population and colorful Buddhist and Taoist temples, Singkawang now serves as a trading center where businessmen buy nests and ship them 800 kilometers south to the capital Jakarta for export.

Dozens of large birdhouses, some as high as five stories high, still stand in Singkawang. But as the human population has grown to 250,000, fewer swifts have entered the city.

The birds were in abundance as recently as 2010, when Yusmida converted the top two floors of her house into a shelter for swifts. But a few years later, Singkawang’s largest shopping center was built next door. Her bird farm has been empty ever since.

“No birds have come for ten years,” she complained.

On the outskirts of Singkawang, about 90 kilometers north of the equator, a farmer, Suhardi, 52, built some of the region’s first birdhouses in 2000. For more than a decade, birds were plentiful and his business was profitable.

At its peak, he said, he could produce 10 kilograms of nests a month, or about 22 pounds, which he could sell for $20,000 — a huge income for an Indonesian farmer. Now if he harvests just over three pounds a month and sells it for $1,500, he considers himself lucky.

He doesn’t blame the overbuilding of birdhouses so much as rising temperatures due to climate change and the clearing of nearby jungle to make way for palm oil plantations, destroying the ecosystem the birds depended on for food .

“The Earth is getting hotter and the intensity of the sun is scorching,” Mr Suhardi said. “There used to be forests to cool off the heat. And now that the forest is disappearing, their food source is also gone.”

It doesn’t help that the government now requires nest exports to go through a handful of traders in Jakarta, lowering the price farmers got when they exported directly to China.

“This situation has caused many bird nest farmers to quit,” Mr Suhardi said. “They sell their houses and land at a cheap price.”

Now many of the birdhouses around Singkawang sit unused. Unlike human houses, the birdhouses are unpainted, adding to the pervasive sense of melancholy.

Mr Suhardi did not expect the Swiftlet’s situation to improve quickly and has switched to planting avocados and durian.

“But I’ll still keep the birdhouses,” he said, “and check them every month or two.”

This article was produced with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Round Earth Media program.

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