Mutton Birds


Mutton birds, back ground information and recipe:

The short-tailed shearwater or yolla as it’s also known in Tasmania, is the most abundant seabird species in Australian waters, and is one of the few Australian native birds in which the chicks are commercially harvested. The Harvested chicks are known locally as mutton birds. This migratory species breeds mainly on small islands in Bass strait and Tasmania and migrates to the sub-arctic Northern Hemisphere for the summer.

Each parent feeds the single chick for 2–3 days and then leaves for up to three weeks in search of food. These foraging trips can cover a distance of 1,500 km,  this means the chick may be left unattended for over a week. When the chicks fledge they weigh around 900 g and may even be heavier than their parents. In Tasmania, and especially on the mutton bird islands of the Furneaux Group in eastern Bass Strait, the chicks are harvested at this time for food and oil.

Shearwaters are facing the same environmental challenges as other species of migrating sea birds such as ocean warming which effects their migratory routes and with the adult birds foraging for food on the open ocean & mistakenly taking plastic debris for food which they then feed it to their chicks. Thousands of Short-tailed shearwater fledglings are attracted to artificial lights during their maiden flights from nests to the open ocean. Fledglings are vulnerable to injury or death by collisions with human infrastructure and once grounded, to predation or becoming road casualties.

Adult short tailed shearwater in flight

Short tailed shearwater migration

Each Australian winter, the shearwaters migrate to the seas off the Aleutian Islands and Kamchatka returning in the Australian spring, they travel down the coast of California before crossing the Pacific back to their traditional nesting sites in Tasmania.

mutton bird migratory flight The Shearwaters migratory route

Mutton bird harvest:

The name "mutton bird" was first used by the early settlers on Norfolk Island, who each year harvested adult Providence petrels for food. The petrels were similar to, but larger than the short-tailed shearwater. An officer in the Royal Marines called them "the flying sheep".

Tasmanian Aborigines have harvested mutton birds and their eggs for many generations, and a number of families continue this important cultural practice. During the mutton bird season, chicks are taken for their feathers, flesh, and oil. The industry was established by early European sealers and their Aboriginal families.

The recreational harvesting of short-tailed shearwaters is limited to an open season that is declared each year. A mutton bird licence must be obtained.

The mutton birds as purchased, hard trimmed of excess fat and skin

Mutton bird Taste:

A harvested mutton bird chick will have only been fed on regurgitated fish, so the meat and fat are highly permeated with a relative strong fish bait flavour, most commercially sold mutton birds are cleaned and dressed upon purchase.

Mutton birds are often trimmed of their excess fat, handling them leaves a fishy smelling waterproof coating on your hands. Mutton birds are often salted upon harvest.

The mutton birds I used were unsalted. because of their greasy, fishy almost kerosene flavour are mutton birds a love/hate cultural dish in Tasmania. oThey are often boiled i outdoor vats (due to the smell) to cook and render away some of the fat off the meat then baked, grilled or put on the BBQ, due to the fat content the birds are juicy the flavour of the fat is generally the optimal taste thus the love them hate them.

Cleaning the mutton birds, note the proportionable small legs and huge budy cavity

Mutton bird recipe

I wanted to try and do something different with them, trying to keep to the cooking and serving tradition while adding to their flavour and changing the fish oil/kerosene after taste.

I chose to use a confit technique and heavily seasoning them with Tasmania’s native pepper berries and leaves and apples, (while neither pepper berries or apples have anything in generically in common with mutton birds, both ingredients are somewhat arguably Tasmanian) I chose to confit the birds in sunflower oil because I wanted to render away the fish oil flavour, this smelly oil in true Tasmanian spirit I tipped under the cover of darkness over the neighbours fence

Mutton birds are about the same size as a large pigeon, large breasts, flight muscles and stomach cavity, as the birds are often cleaned and a lot of the skin & fat is removed some of the traditional whole bird cooking techniques aren't suitable.

The idea with the pepper leaves, berries and apple were to balance the fat content of the richly flavoured meat, the choice of sunflower oil as a neutral oil was that the mutton birds have so much flavour that no other oil would've helped in the flavouring process, I chose the low temperature confit technique to slowly cook the birds thus allowing for a reduction of the fish and kerosene flavours. Next time I'll use more spices to give more taste.

I confit'd the mutton birds outside on the BBQ they didn't smell that bad but i think thats because I used a gentler cooking technique than the locals, they only needed a couple of hours at about 93 degrees.

Confit mutton birds with the aromatics on the go.
Mutton bird butterflied out from the breast bone I removed the backbone and butterflied the carcass, it was easy to see that the mutton bird was made for flying, much heavier wishbone structure than a chicken & smaller legs with no tendons.


I also wanted to serve the mutton birds with a complimentary sauce to make the dish more interesting, so I made a simple chutney, apple, onion & tomato in equal amounts in a vinegar sugar caramel with a few different chutney spices.

I tipped off the oil and allowed the mutton birds to cool, reheated them on the BBQ & served them with the chutney, the chutney added to the dish making them more interesting and complimenting the flavour.

The finished mutton birds served up with the chutney