Bird Watcher's General Store

Bird's Nest Soup is Real - 11/16/07


Dear Bird Folks,

When I was growing up my mother used to make something she called "bird's nest soup." Later I learned that what she really was serving us was chicken soup. My mom had a fun imagination. Is there actually such a thing as bird's nest soup or is it just a slang term for good old chicken soup?

- Lori, Lewiston, ME

I'm not sure, Lori,

Although, I am sure about the answer to your question, I'm not sure if I should answer it. With the big writers strike going on out there in Hollywood, I'm wondering if my fellow scribes would think I'm a scab if I respond to your question. Remember, I'm a legend in the eyes of many of the West Coast's best writers. I would hate to have my image tarnished by a question about bird's nest soup. Hmm. What to do? Okay, Lori, I'll do it. I'll answer your question, strike or no strike. I'll be a scab in the name of your mother's soup. Besides, all healing starts with a scab. I'm not sure what that means, but maybe it will confuse the Hollywood writers long enough to allow me to keep answering questions until the strike is over.

Yes, Lori, there absolutely is a real thing called "bird's nest soup." Amazingly, it has real birds' nests in it, too. And even more amazingly, people actually eat it...on purpose. When I first heard about this kind of soup I envisioned a kettle of boiling twigs, grasses, leaves, plus all sorts of other disgusting material. But the nests that are used in soup are made of something that is even grosser than boiling twigs. The soup-nests are made of birds' spit. Yes, that's right; people make soup out of genuine bird spit. And they make fun of me for eating tofu.

In southern Asia there are several species of birds known as swiftlets. Swiftlets, much like our Chimney Swifts, spend most of their day zipping through the air scooping up insects. But swiftlets don't build their nests in chimneys like our swifts do; instead, they nest in huge colonies on the walls of large isolated caves. These big caves offer no nesting material for the birds to use and they are often completely dark. Yet, somehow, without the use of headlamps or Bic lighters, the birds are able to find their way in the dark, build a nest and raise a family. Here's how they do it.

Like our buddy the bat, swiftlets are one of the few species of birds that use echolocation. Using a series of audible clicks, swiftlets are able to fly right into caves and maneuver with little effort. By measuring the echoes produced by their clicks a bird is not only able to avoid the cave's walls, but is able to avoid the thousands of other swiftlets that are also swooping through the same cave in complete darkness. This would be like us driving through Boston's rush hour traffic while wearing blinders, which is pretty much how Boston motorists drive anyhow.

Using their tiny feet the swiftlets cling to the cave walls and build their nests, without using any outside nesting material. The bird has a large saliva gland under its tongue, which produces strands of super-sticky swiftlet spit. Like layers of gooey spaghetti, the bird piles up sticky strands of spit to form a small cup on the side of the cave wall. Now, here is where it gets weird.

A few hundred years ago, some Asian guy apparently stumbled into one of these swiftlet caves. Then, for some reason known only to him, he decided to scrape one of these spit nests off the cave wall and put it into his soup. When he awoke the next day and discovered he wasn't dead, he scraped off a few more nests, brought them back to his village, and begin marketing his new soup. Over the years it's been claimed that bird's nest soup will cure everything from asthma, to skin problems. And of course it's considered to be an aphrodisiac. They always have to throw that in. Anytime you want to sell something weird just mention that it's aphrodisiac. It'll be a guaranteed sale.

In case you are wondering, the swiftlet nest is basically tasteless and apparently has little nutritional value, but don't tell that to the soup lovers. They can't get enough. Selling at nearly $1,000 a pound, the nests are worth more than silver, which of course leads to problems. In a perfect world, the nests would be taken after the baby birds have flown. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes poachers take the nests while the flightless baby birds are still in them. Good old poachers, the true scabs of the world.

For good or bad, bird's nest soup is a real thing, Lori. It amazes me that people will pay big money for bird spit. A cheaper way to get spit in your soup is, the next time you are in a restaurant, complain that your soup is cold and send it back to the chef. I guarantee you'll end up with free spit in your soup that day.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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