Swift-Houses Bring Swift Incomes to Smallholders in Borneo Peatlands

Swift-houses are big business for smallholders in peatlands

Getting started

Andri Thomas is fiddling with his stereo equipment and adjusting his bird recordings. He double-checks his batteries and electricity supply. The room at the bottom of his swift-house appears similar to a laboratory. A number of English-language science journals lie in a pile on a desk.

Thomas plays his own sound recordings to his swiftlets

Thomas is a conservationist and was initially uninterested in raising swiftlets. But he was drawn to the income-generating aspects of the business in 2014, when he learned that local producers were getting up to 18 million rupiah per kilogram for their nests.

“After realizing that my friend had earned 5 million rupiah from only 0.3 kilograms of birds-nests, I started to check on the prices and the market for myself. At first, entering the business was just a matter of trial and error, but once I got started properly, I realized there are a lot of things one needs to learn in order to become a producer,” Thomas explained.

Accumulating capital and materials

It took him one year to save enough money to start his business. In addition to gathering the capital required, he also took time out to gather construction materials, especially timber. The building materials were easy to obtain, and Thomas built his first unit at a cost of 80 million rupiah. Although it has only a small footprint of 4 X 8 meters, it is still four stories high.

“For timber, I chose only to use good meranti (Shorea sp.) because it is durable in the long-term. You can’t choose your wood carelessly. You have to think about the quality,” he added.

“At first, the walls had only one layer of cladding, but I quickly realized this was not going to be enough. For optimal temperature and humidity control, the walls must have a second layer of boards inside, as well as insulation foil. Adding these cost a further 55 million rupiah, bringing the total cost to 135 million. But after finishing my first swiftlet-house in 2017, I went on to construct a second one the following year, for about the same cost.”

The internal cladding in the first swift-house is made of timber boards

Gambut Kita researchers find that although many of the cheaper units are clad with wooden boards or metal sheeting, some of the largest buildings are made from concrete at much higher costs. However, the capital required to build a small swift-house usually varies between 100-400 million rupiah, depending on the size of the unit and the quality of the building materials.

Waiting on the birds

Trying to establish a swiftlet colony is a bit of a gamble. Fortunately, Thomas found that eight swiftlets had arrived at his house after the first two weeks of opening for business. By the end of the first month, there were twenty residents. However, the population did not grow much more during the first two years. Nevertheless, Thomas decided to wait for all the hatchlings to grow and fly away before retrieving their nests. He believes that the regeneration rate is higher with this technique, as the swift population will only increase in size.

“Although I did not really want to sit and wait, I left the second house undisturbed for four years before harvesting any nests. But waiting did not make any difference to the population size, due to competition from other swift-houses nearby. I only waited because I noticed that a friend who started harvesting straight away had much more difficulty in growing his colony,” he stated.

In nature, swiftlets like to nest inside caves in forested areas

Making the birds feel at home

The use of prerecorded swift sounds is critically important as it provides a stimulus that invites the birds to come in and stay. The sound system must be on constantly, so as to give the birds the impression that they are living in a large colony in their natural habitat.

To start with, Thomas purchased one of the many commercial recordings which are available. But despite paying 2 million rupiah for it, the unfortunate recording had no discernible effect. Apparently, this is a common problem, as many of the noisier recordings don’t often work.

For this reason, he turned towards the scientific literature, and finally ended up recording natural swift sounds with his own cellphone. His own recording is quieter and seems to work well.

“I know the birds will get stressed if there is silence. For example, if they return home and there is no sound to welcome them, they will definitely scream before entering. If there is no sound, there is also a risk they may move to another location,” he explained.

Swiftlets build their nests from their own saliva

Feeding the market

Thomas harvests his nests every two months, getting around 500 grams per harvest. Like most producers, Thomas does not process or upgrade the nests he collects. But he usually contacts several collectors in Palangkaraya to compare the prices they will offer him. The collectors sell the nests in Banjarmasin, and they are later shipped to Surabaya or Jakarta for export.

In fact, producers get slightly different prices for different grades. The best-quality nests are considered to be the white ones, with farm-gate prices reaching 12 million rupiah per kilogram. Prices are only a little lower for yellow nests: between 8 – 11 million depending on their shape, quality, dryness and cleanliness. Nest colour is affected by many factors; including humidity, what the birds are feeding on, and seasonality.

Gambut Kita researchers find that most swift-houses can achieve routine production within the first two years, with nest production averaging 0.1 – 0.5 kg per month per swift-house; making it an attractive proposition for farmers who are prepared to take the gamble. But regular problems to anticipate include pests such as geckos and ants, as well as lightning strikes and thieves.

A mating pair of Pusipaga swiftlets (Collocalia fuciphaga) in their newly-made nest
Woven nesting baskets are hung high on the walls inside the unit
Swiftlets make very small and light nests which are highly prized for their health properties