The muttonbird, tītī, or sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus), is a member of the petrel family of seabirds (Procellariidae). The birds have dark brown plumage, with silvery-white markings under the wings. At breeding time in late November they dig burrows in the ground, where they lay a single egg.
Humans have hunted petrels since earliest times. Archaeological data indicates that petrels were widely distributed throughout prehistoric New Zealand, and later regularly harvested by Māori, although to what extent remains uncertain.
The collecting of muttonbird chicks is one of the few remaining large-scale harvests of any petrel species in the world, and is commonly known as muttonbirding. The term refers to the collecting of chicks or fledglings of small to medium-size. Although the exact origin of the English name is unclear, it appears to come from an 18th-century account of the harvest of wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) on Norfolk Island, where the chicks were described as being remarkably fat with meat resembling mutton.
A number of other petrel species have been harvested in New Zealand, although on a much smaller scale. A few grey-faced petrels (Pterodroma macroptera gouldi) are caught by Hauraki Māori from islands in the Aldermen (Ruamāhua) Group off the Coromandel Peninsula.
Rakiura (Stewart Island) Māori, the Māori people of New Zealand’s southernmost region and their descendants, have rights to gather muttonbirds on 36 islands, known as the Tītī Islands, around Stewart Island. They can harvest chicks each year from 1 April to 31 May. Under the Tītī (Muttonbird) Islands Regulations 1978, people can arrive from 15 March to prepare for the season.
Muttonbirds are probably the most numerous of all the seabirds in New Zealand, with the largest known colony of about 2 million breeding pairs on the Snares Islands, about 100 kilometres south of Stewart Island. It is estimated there is a global population of 40–60 million, which breed on the mainland of New Zealand, Australia, South America and South Africa, and their offshore islands.
The muttonbirding rights of Rakiura Māori are also guaranteed by the 1864 Deed of Cession of Stewart Island. Under subsequent regulation, 18 of the Tītī Islands are termed Beneficial Islands, to which only certain Rakiura Māori families have joint ownership and right of access. The remaining 18 are known as the Rakiura Tītī Islands, which up until the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998 were also known as the Crown Tītī Islands. Prior to 1998 they were owned and controlled by the Crown, subject to the right of Rakiura Māori to harvest tītī.
Rakiura Māori have used muttonbirds for food, as a trade item, and for their feathers and down. The harvest has huge cultural and economic significance.
Muttonbirds are plentiful, and in recorded history Rakiura Māori have never imposed a catch quota. Harvest-management systems on each of the islands are determined by traditional guidelines (kaitiakitanga) or by the muttonbirders who arrive there before 1 April. There are two main forms of management:
Muttonbirding systems have changed over the years, depending on the method most preferred by the Rakiura beneficiaries and the 18 Crown Tītī Islands at the time.
Access to the islands has traditionally been by boat, and this continues to be the main way of transporting the large quantities of equipment that are required. Helicopters are now often used, making it quicker and safer to unload the boats, and giving people more freedom to come and go.
The harvesting of sooty shearwaters, muttonbirds or tītī is divided into two stages: nanao, when chicks are extracted from their burrows; and rama, when they are caught above ground under torchlight.
The nanao period usually lasts from 1 to 22 April, although this may vary from year to year and between islands.
Muttonbirders work during daylight to take chicks from their burrows. Each burrow holds a single chick. Harvesters lie on the ground and reach into the nest chamber to catch and carefully manoeuvre the chick out. If it cannot be reached from the entrance, muttonbirders sometimes dig a hole and pull it out. Great care is taken to seal the hole with a puru (earthern plug) to prevent water from entering the chamber or collapsing it.
Once the chick is removed from the burrow it is quickly killed and pressure is applied to its abdomen so it regurgitates any proventricular oil or stomach contents. Some muttonbirders then plug the throat with feathers or dirt to stop any remaining stomach contents leaking out and soiling the feathers, as this makes plucking difficult.
The rama period can last from mid-April until 31 May, but harvesting usually stops by 15–20 May because most chicks have fledged and left the islands. The moon and the weather largely govern harvesting during this period.
Muttonbirders work at night by torchlight or with lanterns to catch chicks when they emerge from their burrows to exercise their developing wings. Chicks prefer to come out on dark, moonless nights, especially when there is wind and rain. In such conditions, muttonbirders are able to catch the most birds in the least time.
Once muttonbirds have been caught and killed they are transported to the workhouse for processing. About five chicks are tied to each end of a length of flax or twine and either carried back to the workhouse or, where possible, sent down wires running from the hillsides to the workhouses. Processing is highly labour intensive, and the methods used vary between families. The following is a general description of the main procedures.
Chicks are plucked as soon as possible after they have been caught – the feathers are easier to remove while the birds are still warm. For this reason some muttonbirders like to pluck their birds while still out in the birding ground. Plucking is done by hand, or by a purpose-built machine powered by a generator. Machine plucking puts less strain on hands and fingers and is marginally faster. By way of comparison, an experienced muttonbirder can usually hand-pluck a chick in about 46 seconds, and a machine in 40 seconds. Care is taken not to rip the birds’ skin as this reduces its value.
When the feathers have been plucked, a layer of fine down and pin feathers (new growth) remains. These are usually removed with hot wax. After the birds’ wings and feet have been cut off, their bodies are dipped into a copper vat of molten wax floating on hot water. When the wax has cooled and solidified around the bird, it is cracked and peeled off, taking the downy feathers with it and exposing a clean white body. The wax is recycled every season. In the past, muttonbirders would dip the chicks into large pots of hot water and rub off the down by hand.
The clean chicks are hung for a period. They are then split longitudinally through the breastbone and their internal organs are removed. Each chick is graded by size, covered with salt, and packed into 10-litre plastic buckets for storage. Preserved in this way and kept cool, the birds can keep for a year or more.
Before plastic buckets were common, different types of storage containers were used, including large tins and wooden barrels. More traditional are pōhā – bags made of hollowed, inflated blades of bull kelp, enclosed in strips of tōtara bark and placed in flax baskets. A few Māori still use kelp bags, some using the birds’ own fat instead of salt as a preservative; this is called tītī-pōhā or tītī-tahu. On occasion the chicks are preserved without having their stomachs removed – these birds are known as tītī-puku.
Rakiura Māori have initiated a long-term research programme with the University of Otago to monitor the birds and assess the effects of harvesting. Studies carried out in 1999 and 2002 have indicated that on some harvested and unharvested islands populations have fallen by 30–40% over the last two decades. The decline has been partly linked to climatic phenomena such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, a periodic warming of the ocean. Also, muttonbirds are often killed as by-catch in commercial fisheries in the northern Pacific. Preliminary estimates of sustainability and management recommendations will begin to emerge from the studies by 2008, guiding the practice of muttonbirding to ensure the birds remain plentiful.
Ailsa Cain recollects her childhood experiences of muttonbirding.
The most important thing for me when muttonbirding as a child was the way we got together as a family. We lived in Milton and would drive down to Bluff, where we would take a fishing boat to Papatea (Green Island). At that time there were only three houses being used on the island. Attached to the house where we stayed was a workshop for processing the muttonbirds. In addition, there was a pluck hut on the manu (birding ground). It had a coal range, radio and seats, but was otherwise pretty basic.
Jobs were allocated by age. The little kids were the unwaxers (where the wax is peeled off to remove the down). Then you graduated to a gutter. You knew that you would not become a wax dipper or salter until you were about 50. We stayed on the island for around a month and had to do our school work and write a diary. The jobs I remember disliking were throwing the guts away and collecting firewood.
We would get up around 9 a.m. and have breakfast. Then we would do school work and help out around the house. We would have lunch and do some work related to the muttonbirds. Then we’d go out to play on the beach or in the bush before coming home about 4 p.m. to go to bed. We’d get up at about 6 p.m., have tea, and then walk out to the manu. We would catch and pluck muttonbirds, with us kids usually going home about 11 p.m. If we were good and carried some birds back, our mum would read us a story and give us a girdle scone (a flat scone also known as a soda scone).
My enduring memory of this time is the absolute freedom we had as children to freely explore the bush and seashore. These places were totally unspoilt by people, as no one was allowed on the island other than during muttonbird season, between 1 April and 31 May.
We later decided to go to another manu on Taukihepa (Big South Cape Island) because it was where my taua (grandmother) Naina used to bird as a girl. There are a lot more people and birds on this island compared to when we birded there as children. Some people now travel there by helicopter, leaving from Bluff or Riverton. Some people continue to travel from Bluff or Riverton by fishing boat, which can take up to nine hours. Others take the catamaran that leaves from Bluff, and this takes only four hours. Before, we tended to be a lot more conscious of our supplies because they had to last for the entire season. However, now with so many boats and helicopters calling in, it is much easier to get provisions, mail and the newspaper.
On this island we got to see many more ways of doing things. The manu is not as spread out and sparse as the one on Papatea, so the process is more intensive for the plucker – more birds are caught in a shorter time, and they have to be plucked while they are still warm.
We’ve found that by being on Big South Cape Island we have formed closer ties with the other families that bird there. Because birds don’t come out during a full moon, this is a great time to get together with nearby families and socialise. It’s a rare occasion, because harvesting and processing is so intensive the rest of the time.
Anderson, A. ‘Historical and archaeological aspects of muttonbirding in New Zealand.’ New Zealand Journal of Archaeology 6 (1997): 35–55.
Lyver, P. O'B., and H. Moller. ‘Modern technology and customary use of wildlife: the harvest of sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) by Rakiura Maori as a case study.’ Environmental Conservation 26, no. 4 (1999): 280–288.
Lyver, P. O'B., H. Moller, and C. Thompson. ‘Changes in sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) chick production and harvest precede ENSO events.’ Marine Ecology Progress Series 188 (1999): 237–248.
Richdale, L. E. Maori and mutton-bird. Dunedin: Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers, 1946.
Wilson, Eva. Titi heritage: the story of the Muttonbird Islands. Invercargill: Craig Print, 1979.
The Ngāi Tahu website includes information about cultural redress under the terms of the Crown settlement offer. Among the four specific sites discussed on this page are the Crown Tītī Islands.
The website of the research project that aims to assess the sustainability of traditional muttonbirding by Rakiura Māori.
On the New Zealand birds website, this page has a descriptive account and photographs of muttonbirds.