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Nests for Dinner, edited by Andrew Lang


However wonderful and beautiful nests may be, very few English people would like to eat them; yet in China the nest of a particular variety of swallow is prized as a great delicacy.

These nests are chiefly gathered from Java, Sumatra, and other islands of the Malay Archipelago, and are carried thence to China, where they fetch a large price. Although, within certain limits, they are very plentiful, they are very difficult and dangerous to get, for the swallows build in the depths of large and deep caverns, mostly on the seashore, and the men have to be let down from above by ropes, or descend on ladders of bamboo. In Java, so many men have lost their lives in nest gathering, that in some parts a regular religious ceremony is held, twice or three times a year, before the expedition is undertaken; prayers are said, and a bull is sacrificed.

It is not easy to know what the nests are really made of, because from the time that Europeans first noticed the trade—about two hundred years ago—they have differed among themselves in their accounts of the jelly-like substance used by the swallows. Some naturalists have thought it is the spawn of the fish, which floats thickly on the surface of these seas; others, that it is a kind of deposit of dried sea foam gathered by the birds from the beach, while others again think that the substance is  formed of sea plants chewed by the birds into a jelly; but, whatever it may be, the Chinese infinitely prefer nests to oysters or anything else, and are willing to pay highly for them.

Bird's nests for dinner

The nests, which take about two months to build, are always found to be of two sorts: an oblong one just fitted to the body of the male bird, and a rounder one for the mother and her eggs. The most valuable nests are those which are whitest, and these generally belong to the male; they are very thin, and finely worked. The birds are small and feed chiefly on insects, which are abundant on these islands; their colour is grey, and they are wonderfully quick in their movements, like the humming birds, which are about their own size. They are sociable, and build in swarms, but they seldom lay more than two eggs, which take about a fortnight to hatch.