Bintulu is a town rarely frequented by tourists its main draw is a large palm oil mill and offshore drilling. People seem surprised to see us here. One of the first things you hear when you step into the town of Bintulu is birds. Loud trills, cries, and calls. The sky is filled with black shapes with pointed wings that are circling, whirling, and darting. These are not swallows, they are swifts. Swifts and swallows look a lot alike, but they are actually not closely related. Swifts and swallows are a great example of convergent evolution. Both eat flying insects on the wing and evolution has thus provided each of them with pointed wings, long flat bills, similar body shapes, short legs, and good eye sight. In fact, the closest evolutionary relatives to swifts are actually hummingbirds.
But why are there so many swifts in Bintulu? Liz and I identified several different species of swifts here. Some of these build mud cup nests, similar to swallows, and like to nest under the balconies of the tall buildings and in parking garages and bridges near the river. Bintulu just happens to be a good place for them. But some of the swifts are here because people have made a huge effort to lure and keep them here. They are farming the wild swifts, not for meat, eggs, or feathers, but for their nests.
Liz and I have yet to try any birds nest soup, but we probably should before we leave Malaysia. I will report back on what it tastes like.