In Australia’s early colonial days, the settlers enjoyed their parrot pie and almost anything that flew was considered fair game. Now, all wild native birds are protected. Except one. The short-tailed shearwater, commonly known as the muttonbird, is still killed and eaten. While the birds are protected on mainland Australia, a muttonbird industry still exists on the Bass Strait islands north of Tasmania. Licensed commercial harvesting began in 1903.
The term “muttonbird” seems to have originated as a name for the Norfolk Island petrel in the very early colonial years. It is now commonly applied to short-tailed shearwaters, migratory birds that pass the northern summers in the Bering Sea near Alaska, returning to south-eastern Australia each November to breed. Because of their numbers, they are not considered threatened.
Indigenous Australians have eaten muttonbirds for thousands of years, but they became particularly important in the early 19th century when seafarers began exploiting the seal colonies on the Bass Strait islands. Many of the sealers took Aboriginal “wives” and their settlements on the islands found the birds a rich source of food. The Aboriginal descendants of these liaisons now see the annual harvest as a cultural ritual as well as a source of income.
By the 1830s muttonbirds from Flinders Island, preserved in brine, were being sold in Launceston for three shillings a dozen. The birds proved a boon to eleven shipwrecked seamen, who survived on an isolated rocky island in the Hunter group for more than a year by eating them. “Their food consisted solely of the mutton-bird, whose blood they drank as a substitute for water of which the island is destitute,” the Sydney Gazette reported.
Muttonbirds begin to breed at about five years old. They return to their birthplace every November, laying their eggs in burrows. The chicks mature over summer and in early autumn the adults depart, leaving the chicks alone for a week or two before they are fully fledged. It’s during this period that the chicks are harvested for their meat and for the rich oil stored in their crops. The muttonbird season is strictly limited, opening on March 17 and closing on 30 April.
So, how are they cooked and what do they taste like? Many say it’s an acquired taste, gamey and somewhere between fish and chicken. At the annual dinner of the Ornithologist’s Union in Melbourne in 1902, eating muttonbird was considered a ceremony of initiation. On the night, the birds were presented “braized, grilled and devilled” and declared “Not at all bad”.
In 1933, muttonbirds were canned for the first time under the more consumer-friendly name of “Game Squab in Jelly”. The British Australian Canning Company received orders from the mainland as well as Singapore and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The company folded in 1936.
In 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported on a venture by the First Nations people of the Furneaux Island to introduce the muttonbird, or “yolla”, to a wider market. Among their products were meat in a range of cuts, yolla pate, smoked yolla and yolla oil linament. The industry continues, with modern technology and food-handling methods replacing the traditional salting barrels. Products have been on sale at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival and Yolla Products has a website selling directly, albeit in wholesale quantities. They also have recipes. Baked seasoned yolla, anyone?