Also known as the sooty shearwater or titi, the New Zealand muttonbird is Puffinus griseus and belongs to the order of sea birds known as petrels. As a name, “muttonbird” appears to have originated among early European settlers in Australasia and is said to refer to the taste of the flesh. At least as probable is the theory that the name refers to the rather woolly appearance of the downy young.
In New Zealand other petrels are also given the name “muttonbird”. In fact, the sooty shearwater, which is most abundant on the islands about Foveaux Strait, might well be called the southern muttonbird, and the grey-faced petrel, predominant on the islands off the coast of Auckland Province, the northern muttonbird. In Victoria, Tasmania, Bass Strait, and South Australia, the species is the short-tailed shearwater – an occasional visitor to New Zealand seas.
Sooty shearwaters are migrants. During the southern winter they are found in the north Pacific. In September immense numbers fly south along our coasts and the main breeding grounds are reached by the end of this month. After coming ashore in legions, the birds clean out the burrows that have been left vacant from the previous season. In most instances this is done by the same pairs that occupied them during the previous season. A single white egg is laid in each at the end of November.
Breeding grounds are a swarming pandemonium of returning adults at dusk or of outgoing adults at dawn. Hatching begins in mid-January, the first chicks fly by the end of April, and adults begin the return migration at the end of March. The muttonbird season, restricted to Maoris and their families, begins in April and runs into May. Downy or near-flying young are taken by day, or at night by torchlight. About 250,000 chicks are harvested annually and are used for food and as a source of oil and feather down.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.