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Edible-nest Swiftlet

(Aerodramus fuciphagus, Thunberg 1812)

1. Introduction

1.1 Description

Edible-nest swiftlets are small insectivorous birds from the swift family Apodidae. Weighing in at a mere 8·7–14·8 grams and measuring in at 11·5–12·5 cm in length, this species is known to be an excellent flyer and can spend the long periods foraging in the sky without rest (HBW). Edible-nest swiftlets may be observed over a wide variety of habitats (even far out at sea) and are widespread throughout South-east Asia today. This bird is well known (and studied) in the region due to its nest being widely collected or farmed as a delicacy known as bird’s nest soup or ‘燕窝’ in Chinese.

1.2 Identification

A medium sized swiftlet with glossy dark brown upperparts. Rump tends to appear paler grey, but variable and can appear uniform. Brown-grey underparts except almost black undertail coverts, significantly forked tail. Naked or lightly feathered tarsi.

In Singapore, hardly indistinguishable in flight from slightly larger Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus) in flight, unless seen exceedingly well enough to determine the Edible-nest Swiftlet's slightly smaller (1-3 cm) size, slightly pointed tail ends with shallow a relatively deeper notch, and less bulky head and body. In hand, identification is possible as Black-nest Swiftlet has more extensive black feathering on tarsi. Appears to be indistinguishable in flight from potential migrant Himalayan Swiftlet (Aerodramus brevirostris).

1.3 Etymology

The genus Aerodramus stems from two Greek words ἀερο (“aero”) and δρόμος (“dromos”), with aero meaning ‘air’ and dromos meaning ‘path’; the swiftlets are thus named because the air is their path.

The specific epithet fuciphagus originates from Greek as well, with φυκι (“fukos”) meaning ‘seaweed,’ and φαγος (“phagos”) meaning ‘to eat’. This is likely a result of the (false) historical belief that the swiftlets consume seaweed or substances from sea mist which allows it to produce a gelatinous substance with which it builds its nest with.

2. Range and subspecies

The Edible-nest Swiftlet has a large range starting from the South of Hainan island spanning southward along the coasts of Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, subsequently including Sumatra, Java, Lesser Sundas, Borneo, and West Philippines (Figure 1). Much of Peninsula Malaysia is often not indicated as part of its natural range as they were not historically observed to be breeding in the region naturally; birds currently inhabiting the area are likely to be from house farms.

Edible-nest Swiftlet in flight.
(Photo: Lim Hong Yao, 2017)

Range map of Edible-nest Swiftlet 
Range map of the Edible-nest Swiftlet, adapted from HBW (2018).

8 current subspecies are recognized as shown below (with range and comparative descriptions):

  • A. f. amechanus (Oberholser, 1912) – Anambas Is, off SE Peninsular Malaysia.
    • Paler underparts with greyer rump than germani
  • A. f. germani (Oustalet, 1876) – Coastline from W Hainan S around SE Asia to Malay Peninsula, including Mergui Archipelago (off S Myanmar); coastal N Borneo and W Philippines (Palawan E to Panay and Ticao).
    • Paler underparts and whitish rump
  • A. f. inexpectatus (A. O. Hume, 1873) – Andaman Is and Nicobar Is.
    • Slightly smaller than nominate race
  • A. f. vestitus (Lesson, 1843) – Sumatra, Belitung I and Borneo (except N coasts).
    • Darkest upperparts, lack contrasting rump
  • A. f. perplexus (Riley, 1927) – Maratua I, off E Borneo.
    • Some purple sheen on rectrices and remiges, slight contrasting rump
  • A. f. fuciphagus (Thunberg, 1812) – Java, Kangean Is and Bali to W Lesser Sundas (E to Sumbawa), and Tanahjampea.
  • A. f. dammermani (Rensch, 1931) – Flores (EC Lesser Sundas).
    • Slightly paler rump
  • A. f. micans (Stresemann, 1914) – Sumba, Sawu and Timor (C Lesser Sundas).
    • Slightly greyer overall with contrasting rump

Several authors believe that this species should be split into two. In that treatment, ssp amechanus and germani are named Germain’s Swiftlet, while the rest of the subspecies retain the name of Edible-nest Swiftlet. However, taxonomical evidence for splitting the species has been unconvincing to many, and this species page will treat the group as a single species under the Biological Species Concept (see Taxonomy section).

Differences amongst subspecies are often subtle and difficult to distinguish in the field due to variations in lighting as well as difficulty in observing constantly fast-moving subjects.
According to the subspecies range, Edible-nest Swiftlets observed in Singapore should be A. f. germani, but specimens collected appeared identical to the nominate race, likely because colonies in Malaysia and Singapore are of the house farmed variety (see House Farming below), which is suspected to be of Javan origin (ssp. fuciphagus). To complicate matters, their feeding ranges are not known and may overlap.

3. Ecology and behaviour

3.1 Feeding

Edible-nest Swiftlets are aerial insectivores that catch arthropods on the wing. Diet analyses have been conducted by examining regurgitated food boluses; hymenoptera, diptera and ephemeroptera made up majority of the food items, while arachnida, coleoptera and hemiptera made up most of the rest.

3.2 Reproduction

Natural populations of the swiftlets nest in caves, such as the Niah and Gomantong caves in Borneo, and on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. However, due to the practice of farming swiftlets in nest houses (see below), the Edible-nest swiftlets have adopted nesting in man-made buildings as early as the 1880s. (Lim & Cranbrook 2002).

Breeding has been observed to take place year-round but peak in October and February. (Nigel Langham 1979).

  • Nest building: Nests are made of salivary excrement that harden into a cement-like material. Each nesting pair will spend about 25 minutes a day to build the nest, which takes about 45 days to complete. (Kang et al 1991). Nests are re-used for subsequent clutches in the future if not harvested. (Nigel Langham 1979).
  • Chick development: Each pair of birds would usually lay two eggs and spend an average of 23 days incubating them. The chicks take about 43 days to develop and fledge, with an approximate 50% survival rate (Nigel Langham 1979).

3.3 Echolocation

As Edible-nest Swiftlets nest in places which are completely dark, they have evolved the ability to echolocate using clicking sounds, along with many other species from the genus Aerodramus. This ability, however, is not diagnostic of the genus as the Pygmy Swiftlet (Collocalia troglodytes) has been proven to possess this ability too.

Sound recording of an Edible-nest Swiftlet's echolocating clicking calls. (Recorded by Lim Hong Yao, 2018)

4. Human interactions

4.1 Bird's nest soup

The Edible-nest Swiftlet’s nests are frequently prepared in a manner known colloquially as ‘birds’ nest soup’, which has long been a Chinese delicacy of immense value since the T’ang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) Lau and Melville (1994). Like many other Chinese delicacies, birds’ nest soup is not especially tasty, and relies on other culinary additions to appeal to the palate (Thorburn 2015). Its value lies in its rumoured nutritional value and health benefits instead; the broth is said to help reduce inflammation, alleviate gastric problems, boost the immune system, metabolism, and mental performance, as well as improve skin complexion (Marcone, 2005). Several studies have shown that certain claims may hold some truth to them, as components such as sialic acid and other compounds that are purported to aid infant development and immunity were discovered to be present in the nests (Oda et al. 1998; Wang and Brand-Miller 2003; Ng et al. 1986; Kong et al. 1987; Roh et al. 2012). The Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus) also produces nests that are being collected and consumed, but their nests are worth less since they insert their feathers into the nests as additional material, which have to be removed to be eaten.

Given the high valuation of the nests (about USD$20 per nest (Marcone, 2005), nest harvesting naturally became a highly profitable exploit. Despite efforts to keep nesting colonies secret and manage the harvest rates, wild populations of the Edible-nest Swiftlets have plummeted from once immeasurable numbers, and many colonies have now been wiped out, or are critically endangered (Lau and Melville 1994; Sankaran 2001). Italy proposed to include the species under Appendix II of CITES to regulate trade in 1994, but opposition from the Southeast Asian nations prevented it (Thorburn 2015). 

4.2 "Blood nests"

Some of the nests develop red stains in them, and were known collectively as “blood nests” under the false belief that the stains composed of swiftlet blood (Thorburn 2015). These nests are rarer and used to fetch up to five times the price of a regular nest (Marcone, 2005). Instead, the red was due to nitrifying bacteria reacting to ammonia vapours from decaying guano (swiftlet and/or bat excrement) (Thorburn 2015). Some swiftlet farmers discovered this and induced these “blood nests” by treating the white nests with ammonia. Both artificial and natural red nests are found to have abnormally high levels of nitrite, up to 4400mg/kg, which can increase one’s risk of cancer, and potentially cause food poisoning (Food Quality News 2011). As a result, China, once the largest importer of swiftlet nests, banned the import of all birds’ nest from Malaysia and Indonesia. This caused a huge shock to the industry as demand of both "blood nests" and regular nests dropped significantly; China currently only imports from several Malaysian firms that meet strict regulations that were subsequently set up after the ban (Lee 2014).

Edible-nest Swiftlet "blood nest".
(Photo: Lim Hong Yao, 2018)

4.3 House Farming

Two centuries ago, the Edible-nest Swiftlet nested solely on coastal habitats where caves were available, and there were no records of inland nesting colonies (Cranbrook et al. 2013). Swiftlets were first reported to nest in houses near cliffs in the village of Sedayu in East Java in 1880, and entrepreneurs eventually began developing methods to attract swiftlets to nest in houses (Lim and Cranbrook 2002). The industry grew as the use of broadcasting swiftlet calls to attract nesting birds became the norm, and a trade in swiftlet eggs began. House nesting swiftlets first appeared in the Malay Peninsula in the 1930s, reportedly first arriving in Singapore from Java, before spreading North across Malaysia (Chasen 1939; Gibson-Hill1948). The swiftlets have a high degree of nest fidelity, and house farmed swiftlets and their young would return to man-made houses (preferably the same one) to nest again (Kang et al. 1991), leaving the depleted natural populations and habitats unrestored (Cranbrook et al. 2013). Furthermore, house nesting swiftlets are suspected to be a hybrid population of A. f. fuciphagus and A. f. inexpectatus or A. f. germani in what could be an ongoing case of domestication; the population of house farmed swiftlets have since spread Northward up to Myanmar, where it may be competing with local subspecies. More extensive regional genetic studies are required to confirm these suspicions.

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5. Taxonomy and phylogenetics

5.1 Species Taxonomy

Thunberg (1812) first named the Edible-nest Swiftlets in Java Hirundo fuciphagus, mistakenly placing it together with the swallows (passerines). By the 1900s swiftlets were recognized as a separate taxon and all its members were lumped in the genus Collocalia, then subsequently divided into 3 genera: Hydrochous (Giant Swiftlets) are sister to Aerodramus (medium sized brownish swiftlets), and Collocalia (small glossy plumaged swiftlets) are the basal group that are more related to the swifts. (Cibois et. al 2018)

Several studies have attempted to resolve the phylogenetic tree for swiftlets, but success has been rather limited for the Edible-nest Swiftlet as it does not show up as a monophyletic clade on the tree; results often show that one or more individuals of A. fuciphagus are more closely related to the sister species A. salangana (Mossy-nest Swiftlet) than other A. fuciphagus (Cibois et. Al, 2018; Price et. Al, 2005; Rheindt et. al, 2014). The most recent tree constructed using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA analysis is shown on the right (Figure 2) (Cibois et. al, 2018). The low genetic divergence between closely related taxa is likely due to occasional hybridisation events, which have been reported in Sabah (Lee, 1996), leading to genetic introgression in the form of mitochondrial DNA sweeps (Rheindt & Edwards, 2011). It is evident that mitochondrial DNA is not very effective as a taxonomic indicator in the case of the Aerodramus swiftlets, and genomic methods may be a better alternative to resolve these relationships.

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