Swiftlets’ Amazing Endurance

Swiftlets are found all over South East Asia.

Three years ago I wrote a post on this blog about Malaysia’s swiftlet farming industry (you can read it here). Almost as soon as I wrote the article, China (the largest export market) slapped a ban on Malaysian edible birds’ nests due to health concerns over nitrite found in the products. This ban has only recently been lifted for selected Malaysian suppliers.

Swiftlets are quite interesting birds:

  • They can navigate in total darkness thanks to their bat-like echo-location abilities. This is handy as they like to nest deep in the interior of giant caves much as Sarawak’s Mulu and Niah caves.
  • Swiftlets are exceptionally fast flyers and can catch copious quantities of insects in mid-flight.
  • They make their nests entirely from their own saliva (phlegm?).
  • These edible birds’ nests are collected as the prized ingredients for birds’ nest soup and are said to have multiple health-giving benefits (when not tainted with nitrates!).

Raw edible birds' nests and the famous soup.

The most amazing fact about swiftlets is their incredible endurance. According to James Alexander’s Cadogan guidebook on Malaysia, some species can spend up to four years on the wing, without rest. The swiftlet skull has evolved so that one half of the brain is able to sleep while the other works overtime. If only humans could do the same!

Swiftlet Farm near Jugra, Selangor

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