They sell for a ridiculous amount of money, so they can be used in a special bird’s nest soup that is thought to be an aphrodisiac and has other health properties. Not just any nest will do for the nest soup though. These come from a bird called the Edible-Nest Swiftlet, which is a small bird about the size of a sparrow. Swiftlets build their nests differently. They use their saliva instead of plant-based material or twigs to build nests for their offspring. After the nests harden and dry, people come in search of them, so they can be steamed or boiled for the soup.
Extinction for Profit
The nests from Edible-Nest Swiftlets are not actually an aphrodisiac, but the false belief that they are has encouraged the near extinction of these birds on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Some places in Malaysia try to purposefully lure in the little birds to steal their nests that they make by building large nesting areas and using bird calls to imitate them. Each nest is sold for the equivalent of about one thousand dollars, which is why they are sometimes called the “caviar of Asia”. Their high cost is due to not only the high demand for them but also their rarity and the risk involved in searching dark caves and high places to find them.
Banned for a Reason
Luckily, the import of these nests is banned in the United States. Anyone attempting to bring them in is quickly stopped by airport customs and security. They can face harsh penalties of several thousand dollars and severe legal actions because bird diseases, such as SARS, can be spread through exposure to them and their consumption. It is also banned because the United States does not want to encourage this awful practice which can significantly harm wildlife and agriculture.
Why the Practice Continues
Eating the nests of the Edible-Nest Swiftlet is a time-honored tradition that has continued on for about 1,000 years. While many people have done their best to stop the horrific practice, it has remained because of the false ideas concerning the properties that the nests supposedly have. Not only do people think that the nests are aphrodisiacs, but they also believe that they can somehow boost the immune system. Elderly family members are often fed nest soup because of beliefs it helps boost health, and they can easily digest it with its natural base.
Since the nests are made from saliva, it dissolves in boiling water and become gelatinous. Other ingredients are added to the soup for flavor. Still, unless a person has been exposed to the cultural beliefs concerning nest soup, it is a practice difficult to understand. One can only assume that it is the hope and desperation of trying to save loved ones that encourage its ongoing consumption.