There are 21 million Mutton Birds in New Zealand, each year Rakiura (Stewart Island) Maori harvest around 250,000 plump chicks.
After 13 years of research the Otago University found our annual harvest is 100% sustainable. On other Islands abundant with Mutton Birds or Sooty Shearwater that are not harvested, (such as the Auckland Islands and the Snares) there are so many Mutton Birds that there is no room for new burrows under the ground.
Most eggs that are laid don’t hatch as these Islands are simply over populated. On Kai Tahu’s Beneficial Mutton Bird Islands, we keep the numbers of birds down, meaning that virtually every egg laid, hatches and becomes a healthy Mutton Bird.
Our Family Tradition
For over 600 years my Whanau have birded Poutama Titi Island. Poutama is one of the 21 Beneficial Titi Islands surrounding Rakiura. The Beneficial Tītī Islands were not included in Topi’s sale of Rakiura, so have never been part of New Zealand, they are still Aotearoa.
Each Rakiura Maori Family that goes birding has to trace their Whakapapa back to each Beneficial Island. As Kaitiaki we staunchly guard our Taonga. The Titi Islands are the most important land in Kai Tahu’s Rohe. The Islands are our Kaimanu, the food grounds, no matter how bad things are on the Mainland, we can always return to the sanction of our island and get back on our feet. Mutton Birding helps us survive the fiercely cold Southern Winter. We return to the Mainland strong with our Wairua replenished and enough Tītī to sustain us. Our Tipuna are everywhere on our Tītī Islands watching and guiding us. Poutama is my Turangawaewae - my connection to the earth, Te Ao Maori and the Wairua.
Sustainable Culture Based On Traditional Rules
The old Maori Chiefs or Rangatira as kaitiaki, believed that if we lived on our Islands all year round the Tītī may not return. We still govern our Islands by the rules of the old Rangatira . The first day that we may enter the Islands is March the 15th; we start Ngaoing on the 1st of April. This is the process of pulling the Tītī . Chicks out of their burrows, while their parents catch fish during the day.
Rama - The season of the torch
As the Tītī chicks develop, their parents leave them to fend for themselves. By this stage the juvenile birds are very plump. Hunger drives them out of their burrows at night. Their goal is to lose weight, strengthen their wings and wear off their down, allowing their adult feathers to be exposed. They love the wind and the rain, the noise from both help to hide them from predators. It also helps them remove their down and practice flying. This part of the season is called the Rama or the Torch. We go out at night and catch as many Mutton Birds as we can work. We catch birds all night and work them all day; this does not leave much time for sleeping.
The Harvest Cycle
When the Tītī Chicks are physically and mentally ready they jump off a cliff and fly to catch up to their parents. We must leave the islands by May 31st, unless we are trapped by the notoriously ferocious weather. Once the chicks leave the island, they do not return for 7 years. They fly around the Pacific as the adult Mutton Birds do every year. At age 7 they return each year to the same burrow they were born in and the cycle begins again.