Mutton Birds, what an odd, seasonal delicacy they were in my 1950s Tasmanian childhood. Oily, salty and yes,  with a very strong aroma. 😎 I’m not sure whether I actually  liked them,  or whether I just enjoyed the novelty of something so different. I had no idea they were poor little chicks, although as a pragmatic farm kid, would that have put me off? They were all too  easy  to catch in their burrows, unless the birder grabbed a tiger snake instead.  

I’m not sure where my parents bought mutton birds in Ulverstone, but in the early days they were sold by G. & A. Ellis. This advertisement from The Advocate dates from 1911.

Advertisement for Mutton Birds.


We just ate them grilled, but there were other methods of preparing them. The late Marjorie Bligh, a delightfully eccentric cook and author from the Tasmanian town of Devonport, suggested  stuffing a mutton bird with rabbit meat.

Here is a photo of birds being oven roasted, My thanks to Jill Douglas for this,  She told me she stuffed them with a traditional bread mix and apple, 

Mutton birds being roasted.

These do look good. (Photo credit Jill Douglas.)


A recipe similar to Jill’s appeared in The Mercury on April 17 1951.

There was an early, albeit rare incidence of exporting the birds overseas. A Launceston grocer had a long term customer who returned to the UK, and in 1928 he sent the grocer an order. Eight or nine pounds of mutton birds were subsequently packed in a kerosene tin with brine and sent off to an island off Land’s End. (Information from The Examiner, April 11 1928).


During WWII canned mutton birds were sent to allied forces in Australia and beyond, as  a welcome addition to army rations. Labelled ‘Squab in Aspic’, the oil and the odour were removed, prompting the The Mercury to report that is was ‘A dish to be commended to the most fastidious.‘  The canning factory was located at Lady Barron, on Flinders Island.  During the season 6,500 cans were produced mainly by First Nation residents. At the same time there were enquiries from the US for the down, to be used in quilts.   (Information from The Mercury, April 12, 1945)

In 1953, the Town Clerk on Flinders Island sent some birds to the Governor of Tasmania, who sent back this very diplomatic letter. I’m not convinced that Governor Cross really did try them. 😃


Former Tasmanian Federal MP Dick Adams  told television presenter Annabel Crabb that the entrée for his dream dinner party would be: ‘Braised rabbit and mutton-bird served hot in individual coddle dishes’ .  Among the guests he imagined inviting to the meal were the innovative celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and Hu Jintao, then  President of China. I suspect both men would  have appreciated the dish!

The Mutton tastes better than it looks!

A dressed mutton bird ready for grilling.

Despite the colloquial name of the bird, the taste of the meat has been described as a combination of bacon and smoked fish with a big dollop of fat. It has been so long since I tasted one that I don’t l feel qualified to comment.

Here is an  important, contemporary note on the birds. Tasmania is the only Australian state in which it is still legal to harvest them, during a brief season lasting from March 27 until April 30. They are the chicks of the migratory short-tailed shearwater. Around 200,000 are caught and sold each year, mainly by residents of Flinders Island.  Opinion on whether the harvest should be continued is divided.

I think New Zealand is the only other place where mutton birds can be found on menus, especially in the South Island. Photographed below is a risotto, served at an Invercargill restaurant.

Mutton bird on a bed of rice.

In 2019 the decision about continuing to harvest the birds was almost taken out of the hands of humans. There was a mysterious shortage of the adult birds arriving from Alaska. Many of those which did manage the epic journey were underweight and too weak to produce chicks. Here is an article published on the subject in the Tasmanian paper, THE ADVOCATE


A dose of mutton bird oil!

Min Hook taking a dose of oil. SOURCE – ABC NEWS

I loved the above photograph of  ABC journalist Min Hook washing down  mutton bird oil with a large glass of water,        

So is the oil really beneficial?  I was interested in the opinion of a dietician  specializing in ageing and brain health, Ngaire Hobbins. She said the oil is high in omega-3 fats, which means it can support brain function by protecting brain cells and helping them to access the fuel to function at peak capacity. I’m at the age where that sounds pretty good.

However, as far as helping with joint pain she admitted that actually hunting for the birds might be just as effective. To my amusement she said; ‘ Any sort of physical activity is great and it’s no doubt good muscle and bone work, scrambling up and downhills and sand dunes,’


The single egg is about the size of a duck egg and was also harvested by indigenous Tasmanians and colonial settlers. The photograph below was taken at Chappell Island, part of the Furneaux Group. A crook was fashioned from wire and carefully inserted under the sitting bird  to hook out the egg.


NOTE – Mutton birds have been harvested by Tasmanian Aborigines for thousands of years. For an ABC  article on keeping the cultural activity alive on Babel Island, CLICK HERE.








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