Edible-nest Swiftlet: Aerodramus fuciphagus

Today, a request! From one Mas Brian Zbriger, with whom I was in Indonesia on the Critical Language Scholarship. Brian’s wife studies the history of the edible nest trade, which is awesome.

Edible-nest Swiftlet, looking like every swift/swiftlet ever (source: Wikipedia)

The Edible-nest Swiftlet, Aerodramus fuciphagus (Apodiformes: Apodidae), is found throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Like most swifts, they forage for insects on the wing, and they bred in caves and on cliffs or buildings. Their nests are made almost entirely out of saliva, and, as the name suggests, said nests are edible! “Bird’s nest soup” is prized for its aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities, fetching high prices around the world and decimating some populations of the birds that make these nests.

Bird Nest Soup. Yum?

The word “edible” comes from the Latin edibilis, itself from edĕre, “to eat.”

“Nest” can be traced to the Old English nestð, cognate with the Sanskrit nīḍa, Welsh nyth, Armenian nist, etc. The Sanskrit word for “to nest” is ni-sad, and it is from here that we get both the verb “to sit” and the word “nether” (as in where you sit).

Swift nests, pre-soup.

The word “swiftlet” is by far the most boring word in this post — swifts are called “swifts” because they are, well, swift. When swifts forage, they dart through the air very quickly, and the diminutive “-let,” a suffix meaning “small,” comes from the fact that swiftlets (tribe Collocaliini) are smaller than other types of swifts (family Apodidae).

The word “swift,” as in “fast,” comes from the Old English swift, which in turn comes from the reconstructed proto-Indo-European* swipt/swoib, meaning “to move in a sweeping manner,” and thus is related to words like “sweep,” “swipe,” and, yes, “swive.”

*Proto-Indo-European, often abbreviated PIE, is the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages. What is an Indo-European language? Well, languages can be grouped into families, much like taxonomic families, representing shared common ancestry. Indo-European is the family that includes not only English and other Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Frisian, Gothic, Old Norse, etc) along with Romance languages (languages descended from Latin, i.e. from “Rome,” including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, etc), but also the descendants of Sanskrit (such as Hindi, Punjabi, Nepali, etc) and languages such as Greek, Gaelic, Persian, Czech, Russian, Kurdish, Avestan, Tocharian, etc. Of the major languages still spoken in Europe, Finnish and Hungarian are not Indo-European; neither is Basque.

The swift family (Apodidae) and order (Apodiformes) names come from the same Greek word πους (“pous”), meaning “feet,” discussed in the genus Lagopus, “rabbit feet.” The prefix “a-” means “without” or “not” — e.g., anachronistic, anarchy, asymptomatic, plus also amethyst (“not drunken,” from the belief that the stone could cure intoxication), Amazon (“without breast”, as in the female warriors who cut off their right breasts so as to better shoot their bows), and asylum (“without right of seizure,” seriously) — swifts are the “without-feets.” Swifts, like their close relatives the hummingbirds do indeed have very tiny tarsii (foot bones), and in the Middle Ages it was thought that swifts straight-up did not have feet.

Yes, that’s right, swifts are most closely related to hummingbirds — swifts are not passerines. Yes, swallows are. Isn’t convergent evolution amazing?

swift-swallow-04Swallow (left, a passerine) versus swift (right, not a passerine).

hummingbirdHummingbird. (Most closely related to swifts. Definitely not a passerine. Note tiny feet.)

Aerodramus, the genus of swiftlets that echolocate (yes, like bats!), comes from the Greek ἀερο, “aero,” meaning “air,” as in aeroplane (if you’re British), aerodynamic, Aeroflot (the airline), aerial, plus, you know, the word “air” itself, combined with δρόμος, “dromos,” meaning “road” or “path.” As in, swifts are birds for whom their air is their path.

Finally, the species name fuciphagus comes from the Greek φυκι, “fukos,” meaning “seaweed,” and φαγος (“phagos”), the gerund from the verb φάω (“phao”), meaning “to eat.” Think, for example, phagocytosis, bacteriophage, etc.

So, putting it all together, the edible-nest swiftlet is either a “little fast thing with an edible nest” or a “seaweed-eating feet-less bird with the air as its road.”

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One thought on “Edible-nest Swiftlet: Aerodramus fuciphagus

  1. Pingback: Cerulean Warbler: Setophaga cerulea | Name This Bird

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