For residents of southern Thailand, it's been a rough start to the year. A series of attacks by alleged separatists on security forces and schools has spooked domestic tourists. Now, a deadly outbreak of avian flu in other parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia is threatening to end an alternative source of cash - birds' nests.
Some businesses have been supplementing their lost tourist revenue with the lucrative trade. The four-star CS Pattani Hotel, for example, is opening a new wing in the hotel - for birds.
Pattani, a fishing town and former Islamic sultanate, is in the midst of a property boom fueled by the fortunes to be made from selling edible birds' nests to ethnic Chinese buyers. Dozens of new buildings specially designed to attract the tiny swiftlets, whose nests are prized for making soup, are going up around town.
The pace of building raised eyebrows even before the flu outbreak, including among breeders. "I can't count how many birds are up there in the open skies, but I think soon there will be more buildings than birds," says Anusart Suwanmongkol, who manages the CS Pattani.
So far, competition for Pattani's swiftlets and their valuable nests has been peaceful, even if the profits are usually off the books. Investors are touchy about spies, though, and few are prepared to let outsiders peek into their birdhouses.
One exception is the CS Pattani, where the craze began about five years ago when birds began colonizing its basement. It is now home to about 10,000 swiftlets and recently harvested a record 13 kilograms (28.6 pounds) of nests.
Collecting the nests is a chore. A hotel worker dons a gas mask to keep out the stench and uses a paint scraper to remove the off-white nests from the rafters. But the rewards are sweet enough: Good-quality nests fetch upwards of $2,000 per kilo.
Most are exported to Hong Kong and Singapore, though mainland Chinese buyers have also begun showing up in recent years. The nests, which look like vermicelli, are soaked and any debris removed with tweezers before being boiled and mixed in chicken broth to serve as soup.
The hotel's unexpected success has spawned legions of competitors in Pattani. Some homeowners have built roof extensions, while richer investors have erected multistory condominiums only for birds. The local Ford dealership converted its top-floor tennis court into a birdhouse and recently completed a sealed, high-rise block on an adjacent lot.
The basic idea, say birdhouse owners, is to mimic the coastal caves where swiftlets normally nest. This means thick walls, sprinklers, little light, and low ceilings with wooden rafters where birds can nest. "They like it dark, damp, and humid. Like a cave, basically," says Anusart.
Not everyone has managed to copy the formula. Locals say some refitted condos are still empty several months after being refitted for bird habitation. Owners are encouraged to blast recorded swiftlet song round the clock and a local doctor-turned-breeder is doing a brisk trade in selling swiftlet CDs at $25 each.
Mechanic Prakorn Tantiuthikrai says he was inspired to get into the business when, while at the CS Pattani, he saw a cloud of birds descend on the basement. He has since spent $140,000 to construct a four-floor brick birdhouse above his new spare-parts warehouse, which will be finished sometime in April.
Inside the gloomy double-walled building, he explains how knee-high air vents allow air to circulate without letting in light. He calls his birdhouse an experiment that is bound to succeed. "Everyone here who has built a birdhouse has managed to get some birds, so why not me?" he asks.