George Town going to the birds

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Did you know that swiftlet breeders, eyeing the lucrative edible nests market, have taken over 8.3 per cent of some 3,500 pre-war buildings in George Town?


Photos show the interior of a converted house, the installation of a compressor and the bricked up windows at the rear of the building

One concerned George Town resident expresses alarm. This letter was sent to The Star in response to a report but was not published:

I read with interest the article ‘Swiftly growing’ and what Association of Swiftlet Nest Industry(ASNI) president, Carole Loh, had to say about swiftlet farming. It is a very lucrative business indeed but I strongly believe it is best suited to areas where the birds naturally feed, over agricultural or forest areas, or in combination with agriculture, in areas of low population. Ms Loh is totally correct when she says that it is a risky business with an 80 per cent failure rate but the business is becoming much more about technique (than she says) to attract the birds in the first place. There are really no secrets anymore. All the information you need to start a brand new swiftlet breeding house is readily available on the internet, as are the tapes and tunes needed to attract or detract the birds to/from your artificial cave.

In the heritage area of George Town the “booming” industry is indeed taking over the Unesco World Heritage site and now should be viewed as a danger to the human population. The fact that it is called “swiftlet farming” gives you the first clue that you are breeding and farming, like chickens, a huge number of birds in a confined area right within a living, working, eating local population. The reason the heritage buildings are so popular is that the investment needed to turn these lovely old buildings into damp, dank caves is much less that that required to build a custom-designed swift house in the more appropriate agricultural zone. Here it will cost you between RM800,000 to RM1 million to complete a customised four-storey birdhouse. In the heritage houses all the breeders need do is rip out original windows and doors, block up the openings, rip out internal walls, set up a sprinkler system and buckets of water, put up the planks with grooves for the birds to cling to, set up the very loud noise- polluting tapes and finally, ‘restore’ very prettily, the frontage of the heritage house. A little make-up hides a multitude of sins.

The bird’s nests are “believed” to keep you young, give you clear skin, and a whole host of promises. A lot depends on how the nests are treated as often they are treated with chemicals “believed” (by some) to cause cancer. To give credit, Malaysian bird nests are more sought after because up to now, they apparently use less chemicals in the cleaning treatment than their Indonesian competitors.

The bird’s are certainly becoming a potential health hazard just because of their sheer numbers. This bird aerodramus fucihagus (although it may be in fact a sub species of the same – this has yet to be confirmed because of lack of scientific research into the various species) is naturally a cave dweller and listed as ‘endangered’. Certainly as I was growing up, it was. As a result, the product itself needs licences to be exported. In theory a licence is required even if you are a tourist buying it and taking it out of the country. Breeders require licences from Perhilitan and are supposed to take a course with the Veterinary Services Department. The bird numbers started to increase as artificial breeding and the desire to stay young helped promote this product as a business. The business has certainly been here in George Town within a very limited number of buildings, for quite a number of years. However, in the last 10 years or so the increase in population has certainly taken it out of being endangered and into the realms of being a pest. The tsunami that struck Sumatra so badly boosted numbers here in Malaysia because apparently the birds hated the instability and seismic activity over the water and fled here. After the tsunami, opportune breeders set up in large numbers along the coast from Pantai Remis, Lumut, Setiawan and into Teluk Intan and again, it has exploded here in George Town.

According to Ms Loh “at least 8.3 per cent of 3,500 prewar buildings have been restored by breeders”. This is very interesting. This means at least 290.5 houses within the core and buffer heritage zone of George Town have been taken over by bird houses. With 82 streets in this same zone, this means if we spread it all evenly, we in George Town live with 3.5 houses farming birds, per street. We all know swifts are birds, but if we had 3.5 houses breeding thousands of chickens per street, the Health and Safety Department would not let us do it. A bird is a bird after all.

These figures are also interesting because according to Council, breeders need licences and permits. According to the Licensing Department, only 29 houses have permits or permits pending. The last State Government decided to stop issuing permits in 2005 (perhaps it could foresee a potential health threat to its people?) and announced that the swift breeders would be moved out by end 2008. In the meantime, there are about 150 bird houses recorded with no permits, just in the core zone. According to Ms Loh’s calculations there are in fact about 261.5 bird houses with no permits. It would be great if Ms Loh could clarify if in fact when she said “it is not justified to focus on a few errant swiftlet breeders” she meant to say “it is not justified to focus on the few swiftlet breeders WITH permits or permits pending”. With the figures offered it would seem that the ASNI is in fact encouraging the de-population and destruction of heritage buildings, forcing the intangible culture of George Town (its people) out of the heritage zone and risking the Unesco heritage listing of George Town. George Town is not just about pretty frontages on buildings and noisy little birds flying overhead. What has happened to the human loving pairs and sound asleep babies originally living in these very many swift houses?

Dr Christopher Lim, a noted swiftlet authority, disagrees with Ms Loh. He is quoted in The Star Online 23 August 2009, regarding regulations, as saying, “Other rules apply like using only non-residential areas and not using heritage buildings.” He is a doctor and perhaps he just follows a moral code of conduct?

With the news that the swift houses would be relocated out of the heritage zone at the end of 2008, and believing in the integrity of the then State Government we, as a family, decided to invest in a wonderful property to restore and make our home. We felt our investment was protected as we assumed that the swift houses in the Little India area would be relocated and our health would not be put at risk by bird faeces and the airborne fungus spores that grow on bird faeces, not to mention the noise pollution from the tapes and the large number of birds themselves.

Of course then we, the people, voted the current State Government into power based on their integrity and promise to improve the lives of people. You can imagine our disappointment when come end 2009, this State Government decided to extend the period of relocation to end 2009. I’m sure other house owners, investors, developers, all would have been disappointed as suddenly, a home hard worked for is compromised by the possibility that the birds next door won’t be moved or that new birds would move in next door. We moved into our home in February 2009 counting the months to the end of 2009 whilst watching around us, the heritage houses being dismantled and swift houses then built and established with no plans and no bother from council, and of course no permits. We wondered what had happened to basic law. We are citizens, we are rate payers and we pay our taxes. Why did Council allow me no protection from damage next door, from noise pollution and from the threat to my health? Why has Council allowed the breeders to go on investing large sums of money while ignoring basic building laws which Council is surely compelled to act upon? Surely Council has the law to follow eventually, and should not have led the breeders into feeling a sense of false security?

Ms Loh states quite firmly “droppings that we see outside are actually that of pigeons as swiftlets are very particular and they only release their droppings in the house”. I can assure Ms Loh that flying swifts do release their droppings on top of me, my children, my friends and my house and it all needs to be scrubbed with disinfectant. I also know that I do not have hundreds of pigeons sitting or flying over my house every morning and night. They are definitely swifts and the size of the droppings tell me so. I would be very happy to show Ms Loh the difference between swift and pigeon droppings and also inform her that we do in fact have many other bird species, in lesser numbers of course, flying and roosting around George Town.

Ms Loh also says, “The breeders clean the bird houses weekly as the swiftlets like a clean premises.” Please can Ms Loh explain to me why the breeder adjoining our home has green slime oozing from under the roller shutter at the back of his bird house? Can she also explain the stagnant water pools in his property, clearly visible from our house and the sprinkler system which keeps our adjoining wall water damaged. Ms Loh claims that the breeders use humidifiers not sprinkler systems. I’m afraid that this is not true.

As president of ASNI, Ms Loh surely is compelled to make sure the breeders who are registered with the association, all have permits, follow the basic building guidelines required by Council and also, protect her members by advising them not to invest their hard earned cash when permits are no longer issued.

The State Government has disappointed again. At the end of 2009, swift houses were not relocated despite the building inspectors verbally reassuring me that they would be. Our Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng declared, at the recent conference on the ‘Economics of Heritage Revitalisation’, “We have committed ourselves to Unesco to protect, preserve and promote the George Town World Heritage Site…” He continued, “We must also create a sense of belonging amongst the people of Penang that can connect them with the heritage city of George Town. It is important that heritage conservation is perceived as something alive, relevant to our lives and a source and symbol of pride.” In the end the Chief Minister is responsible for creating either a wonderful place to live and work (It is certainly not too late: the Unesco Status has brought tourists, new business and vitality already. I see it everyday living in the heart of town) or a place alive just with birds, pretty facades and sick people who will not wish to connect with the heritage of George Town. Vietnam is evicting breeders from its towns because it has suffered the consequences from noise, complaints from residents and tourists, and has no emergency measures in case of an outbreak of bird flu. In Batam, Indonesia, eviction is underway to halt the noise pollution and to stop the town from becoming so unsightly. Can we please learn from them instead of making the mistake here?

I am a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of Malaysia and George Town, who has always worked tirelessly at promoting our wonderful city and country. I am truly gutted by the fact that my State Government offers me no recourse but seems to protect anyone with a house full of birds and the will to flaunt the law, disregard their very own heritage and culture, ignore basic building codes and risk mine and everyone’s health and safety.

A George Town resident

Others too have expressed concern too. Check out this blog here.

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Anil Netto
pop wire

Swiftlet breeders have taken over 8.3 per cent of some 3,500 pre-war buildings in George Town http://j.mp/c9p1p7 via

Fly free

For those affected residents etc, visit

http://noswiftlethousesingeorgetown.blogspot.com/

and spread the news. thanks.

tiger

Iron should take some lessons of his own! Swifts, swiftlets and swallows are all different species of bird. The little swiftlets that everyone wants to breed make nests with their saliva. During the day they fly to feed above agricultural and forest areas. This is the only way they feed and they eat insects. They do not eat seeds or meat and they do not come down to the ground to feed. At intervals during the day and at night, they come back to their artificial caves- – to rest and sleep and breed. They drink by flying over pools… Read more »

wira

Personally, I am not annoyed by the swiftlets because I don’t live near a breeding house. However, you should talk to those who live near one. The birds, by themselves, are a lot less annoying than the artificial chirps which are carried by loudspeakers/twitters mounted at those breeding houses. I am told that those speakers are turned on at regular hours throughout the day and into the night. The local authority should enact laws to protect the neighbourhood against such rude encroachments. They should also look at the health aspects of such breedings because unlike dogs, swiftlets do not follow… Read more »

tiger

No only could they carry avian disease- as they come into contact with local pigeons, crows etc that roost outside the swift houses- but the feces in the houses encourages the growth of a fungus which causes lung disease. This fungus enters our lungs through the air, through airconditioning, by falling in food etc.

wira

If you breed one or 2 dogs for companionship, there should exist no commercial regulation for you, save the decency rule that you ought to be considerate to the neighbourhood pertaining to your pet’s excreta, noise and bite.

However, if you breed them for commercial purposes, eg. running a dog farm, then it is pertinent that the local authority come out with some regulations so that public health and comfort are not breached.

Ditto with swiftlets.

Iron

Wanna compare? Take the amount of dog shit per dog per day, to that of swiftlet shit, per swiftlet, per day — you tell me, how many swiftlets’ shit is equal to the (at least) two big piles of dog shit produced per day? And about the “considerate” … how many dog owners in Penang is of the “considerate” type? How many of the dog owners pick up the dog shit after their dogs? And worst of it all — there are a lot of dog owners in Penang who raise much more than the 2 dog / house limit.… Read more »

tiger

Actually I have the equivalent amount of swift shit on my car each morning! I live in George Town and am surrounded by ever expanding illegal swift houses with no licenses. At least you don’t have to scrape shit off your car each morning Iron!

Iron

What I do not understand is, Anil has no idea what Swallows (or they call Swiftlets) eat and yet he speculates that birds are more “suitable” to area where they “naturally feed”. Dear Anil, Please take some zoology classes before telling us where is naturally feed area, where isn’t. Different birds feed on different things. Some eat insects, some feed on seeds, some eat meat, and so on. Swallows feed on insects, and just in case you don’t know, BANDARAYA has a lot of insects. Which means, if you insist on your naturally feed area theme, the so-called “swiftlets” naturally… Read more »

tiger

The authorities actually do something about crows. They came from India on the boats is what people think. There are crow shoots and cages. would be great if authorities could fly up sticky kites and catch the swifts- just like flies!

jytou

Swallows and Swifts are two different groups of birds that are not related to each other. However, due to similarity in behavior of feeding in flight mainly after flying insects, they are often given same or similar names in many cultures, such as Chinese and Malay where both groups are collectively known as “yan zi” and “Layang-layang”. Swallows are passerines, which is related to most of the birds that you would had seen, such as sparrows, mynas, crows and etc. They are capable of perching on wyrelines and release droppings onto cars parked under these wyrelines. 2 species are commonly… Read more »

Taikohtai

Mate, what say you if you fight fire with fire?
For those who are affected, all you may need is to consider the natural enemy of the swift.
And the answer to that is the Eagle. So why not fly an eagle kite or playing loud eagle noises in your compound and that should scare the s… out of the swifts! Bet the swifts owners will pay you big bucks to stop your antics……….so I hope you will not succumb that easily.

tiger

Good idea! Yes eagle cut outs work. Nest boxes for owls work but best of all, you can purchase sonic contraptions that keep the birds away totally. I am investigating this now. I’ll let you know how they work. And they are very affordable too. It’s a great business opportunity for someone. More swifts, more need for bird deterrents!

Gerakan K

Cannot imagine if this blog owner is part of ruling government. No chance to see any dogs, cats, even monkeys on the street.

Dear all, better worry about the unknown angel than the known devil.

Iron

What do you have against the birds, Anil?

If George Town, nay, not only George Town, but Penang goes to, is the DOGS !!

DOG SHIT EVERYWHERE !!

And some more, I have seen with my own eyes that packs of dogs chasing after bicycle and motorcycle riders, almost causing accidents.

If you want to complain, sir, please complain about those dogs. Stop complaining about the birds which have existed in Penang long before Homo Sapien Sapien ever stepped foot on Penang !

tiger

Ummmm…….dogs were around way before homo sapiens too and see what happened. Dogs in all sorts of shapes and sizes wandering everywhere becoming a menace. Humans thinking that they had a great idea- breeding dogs. Its all out of hand. Same as the swifts! Iron, you’ll be complaining about the swifts soon too. Wait and see!

jytou

Dogs arent native in urban Penang or anyway in Malaysia and technically the whole world, the domestic dogs, Canis familiaris is a domestic species as a result of long domestication of the wolves. It is not a wild animal and is technically “created” by human.

In Malaysia, the only wild dog is the Asiatic Jackal which is a forested species on the brink of extinction.