BIRDS have always had a great influence on the lives of Borneo natives, especially those living near the forests. Bidayuh Kutian Bung, a collector of edible birds' nests in Bau, Sarawak, says: "If you step out of the house and hear the call of a bird of bad omen, then you'd better stay home. Otherwise, you may meet with an accident."
He said birds of bad omen include Bejampung (Crested Jay), Ketupong (Rufous Piculet), Pangkas (Maroon Woodpecker), Embuas (banded Kingfisher), Nendek (White Rumped Shama), Beragai (Scarlet-rumped Tragon) and Kelabu Papau (Diards Trogan).
As his is a highly dangerous job, Kutian cannot afford to ignore the superstition. To get the nests, he has to climb the high cave walls to reach crevices where the birds make their nests. One wrong step could prove fatal for him.
As a Sarawakian, I grew up listening to stories about timber loggers who refuse to go to work if there's a bad omen at the start of the day, particularly a bird's call.
Bad omens also come from hearing animals like bear, barking deer, ingkat (sloth), bengkang (loris) and belengkiang (lizard).
Looking younger than his mid-40s, Kutian is a picture of perfect health, perhaps due to his physically demanding job. His heavily tattooed body is decked with gold jewellery - a sign that collecting birds' nests is lucrative.
According to Kutian, with three or four trips, he can earn up to RM10,000 in a good month. He sells them to Chinese medicine shops in Kuching.
Birds' nest is said to be able to help balance body fluids and strengthen vital organs including the lungs. It has been traded in Sarawak for over 1,000 years. In the old days, Chinese merchants sailed all the way to Borneo to exchange pottery or tajau for bird's nests.
The nests are also harvested in the Niah Caves in Sarawak and the Gomantong Caves in Sabah.
I met Kutian at the foothills of Sarawak's Fairy Cave in Bau, where birds' nests can be found in abundance.
Kutian said sighting of swiflets in the area is certainly a good omen. Their calls are music to his ears and that's good omen indeed!