dried bird's nest

Scouring around for leads on new eye serums, I found myself on the site of an Asian skincare brand called BioEssence. It touts a potion called Bird’s Nest + Peptides and, yes, it really does include bird’s nest. BioEssence claims this improbable ingredient contains “nutri-collagen”. Birds nest potions have been coming on to my radar recently (of which more later) and so I decided to see if they could be anything more than a flight of fancy.

The type of nest that is eaten in soup or made into cosmetics is the work of the swiftlet (aerodramus fuciphagus), a small member of the swift family and common in Southeast Asia. Clear your mind of a cluster of twigs. The swiftlet nest is made entirely of the bird’s saliva and is pretty impressive as far as nest construction goes — the bracket-shaped nest is white and is made of layers of hardened saliva attached to a rock face or building.

Although apparently cleaned before being incorporated into face cream, it is sobering to remember that a nest is the swiflet equivalent of a double-wide serving as nursery, bathroom and kitchen. But even if I am willing to get past this reservation, I would still like to know whether bird’s nest has real benefits.

Nutri-collagen, as BioEssence claims, may be pushing things a bit. One study concluded that the nutritional content is mostly protein, followed by carbohydrate. I was about to conclude that edible bird’s nests were a hoax, when I found some research that changed my mind. Bird’s nest has epidermal growth factor (source) and is being used in research on cancer (source).

Bird spit may be credible, but it won’t be making it into my beauty regimen. There is a tragic backstory to this trending anti-aging ingredient. Bird’s nests are becoming big business for the soup and cosmetic industries and the environmental impact is beginning to look grim.

Some swiftlet populations have been harvested so extensively that they are considered critically threatened. Increasingly nests are taken before the birds have a chance to lay their eggs. Meanwhile, in the last few years, swiftlet nest farming has become big business. I came across websites promising earnings of $1m a year and offering tips for building “houses” that attract swiftlets with tweeters so that they will construct their nests. According to The New York Times, bird houses have been popping up Borneo, creating an unregulated industry to replace logging lost to widespread deforestation.

I have witnessed Borneo’s deforestation first hand, making for a rather depressing vacation a decade or so ago. Thankfully, the plundering of swiftlet nests hadn’t started there then.