April 13, 2024

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

Windowless, the gloomy gray building that rises four stories above the rice fields in a remote village in Borneo, Indonesia, looks like nothing more than a prison.

Hundreds of similar concrete structures, filled with small ventilation holes, tower over shops and village homes along Borneo’s northwest coast.

But these buildings are not for people. They are for the birds. Specifically, the swift, which builds its nests inside.

Zulkibli, 56, a civil servant who built his giant birdhouse in Perapakan village in 2010, supplements his income by harvesting swiftlets’ nests and selling them for export to China.

The nests, made from 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 often nest in coastal caves, where harvesting them can be dangerous work. The key to attracting birds to a man-made home, Zulkibli said, is to treat them like “rich human beings” and ensure their comfort and safety. Zulkibli, like many Indonesians, has a name.

“Comfort, regulating the temperature,” he said. “Safety, keeping pests and predators away. The swifts’ house must be very 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 in West Kalimantan province where Perapakan is located, is a major producer, with the birds thriving in its insect-rich marshy coastal areas.

The bird’s nest business can be profitable. Over the past decade, so many property owners in this sparsely populated region of coconut and banana trees have been eager to cash in that the number of birdhouses here has quintupled, Zulkibli said.

In a twist on condo conversions, some people have even remodeled the upper floors of their homes — boarding up windows and cutting ventilation holes — to make them habitable for swifts.

Swifts are fast, insect-eating birds that can cover great distances in a day, using echolocation to navigate in low-light environments. They build up to three nests a year, Zulkibli said, frequently changing nesting sites.

With the glut of birdhouses in the region, many now have vacancies.

“Birds have a lot of options,” Zulkibli said.

So homeowners compete to attract swifts by playing recordings of the clicking sounds they make as they echolocate.

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

Bird nest theft is a common problem. Zulkibli said his birdhouse has been robbed 20 times, and thieves sometimes break through its concrete walls.

Birdhouse owners say they wait until the chicks have left the nest before harvesting and that neither the parents nor the babies are harmed. But sometimes thieves steal nests prematurely, killing the chicks in the process.

Inside Zulkibli’s 50-foot-tall birdhouse, wooden beams crisscross the ceiling, creating places for birds to nest. Each ventilation hole is covered with mesh to keep out vermin and is connected to a short, curved tube that blocks out light, helping to replicate the darkness of a cave. A ground-level pool of water helps cool the building and gives 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 x 3 meter holes on each floor.

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

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

Once the swifts are settled in their nests, he said, they let him pet them.

South of Sambas Regency, the coastal town of Singkawang was once a major nest producer. But today he 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 commercial hub where businessmen buy nests and transport them 800 kilometers south to the capital, Jakarta, for export.

Dozens of large birdhouses, some as tall as five stories high, are still scattered around Singkawang. But as its human population grew to 250,000, fewer swifts entered the city.

Birds were abundant, as recently as 2010, when Yusmida converted the top two floors of her house into a home for swifts. But a few years later, Singkawang’s biggest shopping mall was built next door. Since then, his birdhouse has been empty.

“Not a single bird has appeared in a decade,” she lamented.

On the outskirts of Singkawang, about 90 kilometers north of Ecuador, 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, it could produce 10 kilograms of nests a month, or about 22 pounds, which it 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 excessive construction of bird cages so much as rising temperatures due to climate change and the clearing of nearby forest to make way for palm oil plantations, which have destroyed the ecosystem the birds depended on for food. .

“The Earth is getting hotter and the intensity of the sun is scorching,” Suhardi said. “In the past, there were forests to cool off the heat. And with the disappearance of the forest, their food source also disappeared.”

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

“With this situation, many of the bird nest farmers have given up,” Suhardi said. “They sell their houses and land for a cheap price.”

Now, many of the birdhouses around Singkawang are unused. Unlike human homes, birdhouses are not painted, adding to the pervasive feeling of gloom.

Suhardi, not expecting the swift situation to improve any time soon, started planting avocados and durians.

“But I’ll still maintain 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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