On a rainy and moonless night, on a cluster of tiny uninhabited islands scattered near the bottom of New Zealand, Rakiura Māori hunters are heading out for another night of hunting tītī chicks, a native seabird considered a delicacy for its oily meat.
The hunters gently place their feet in the tracks carved out by their ancestors and now worn deep into the earth from generations treading the same paths. Careful not to disturb the birds’ burrows, the hunters scan the ground with their torches.
When caught, the docile gray chick is killed onsite, its feet bound with flax rope, and slung over the hunters’ shoulders. They work well into the night, until either the weight of the birds or fatigue slows them down.
For up to 10 weeks a year, between March and May, Rakiura Māori (the southernmost sub tribe of the Ngāi Tahu iwi) make the treacherous journey from mainland New Zealand to the Tītī Islands in the Foveaux Strait – thought to be one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world – to carry out the customary harvest of tītī, also known as muttonbird or sooty shearwater.
The rich and fatty chicks are one of the only native birds legally allowed to be hunted in New Zealand and have been a staple of Māori diet and trade for hundreds of years. But the ancient tradition could face an uncertain future, as climate change begins to alter the harmony of the tītī’s ecosystem.
The annual harvest is a carefully guarded custom, requiring a would-be hunter, or “muttonbirder”, to prove they descend from a signatory to the 1864 Rakiura Deed of Cession, which gave chiefs and their descendants rights to specific parcels of land on the islands. The hunters can catch birds only on their designated manu (birding ground).
“It’s like hopping on a time machine and going back 1,000 years,” says Stuart Spurr, of Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha descent. Spurr’s family has continually hunted the islands for roughly 600 years.
“I can feel the ancestors around me in the forest – it’s almost like that overlap between the spirit world and te ao mārama, the land of the living, is very thin down there.”
To give a muttonbird as a gift can increase mana (status) and is an important part of manaakitanga (showing care), Spurr adds.
“When it gets in your blood, it’s really hard to move away from that lifestyle,” says muttonbirder Tony McColgan, whose first trip to the islands was at age two. Aside from a brief stint living elsewhere in his 20s, the 53-year-old has done it almost every year since.
“We are walking in the steps of our ancestors, that’s pretty special.”
‘It gets in your blood’
When McColgan was a child, the whole family would pile on to a tiny boat for 13 hours across the dangerous strait, and then work long days and nights to gather enough tītī to make it economically viable. Now, he travels by helicopter, and some of the technology around preparing the birds has evolved, including waxing off their downy feathers, instead of spending lengthy periods over a boiling pot trying to burn them off.
This year was a bumper season, meaning Spurr and McColgan can return to the mainland with buckets of the salted birds – which taste a bit like anchovy – to sell across the country.
Yet the sustainability of the harvest is uncertain, especially as climate change wreaks havoc on weather patterns and sea temperatures, which then affects the bird’s food sources.
Warmer waters push the tītī’s food – krill and squid – into deeper waters, making it harder for the parent birds to find enough food for their chicks. McColgan has noticed in recent years the chicks have less food in their stomachs.
The seasons are also changing, with warmer days lasting into May. “When I was a kid, we would spend all our time in gumboots and wet weather gear,” McColgan says. “Now at the start of the season it is a pair of shorts and gym shoes.”
Chicks emerge when the temperature drops, so waiting longer for that weather change could mean they burn through their fat reserves faster—a risk to the bird and a problem for the hunters.
A 2008 University of Otago study showed that climate change, fisheries bycatch, pests and traditional harvesting were contributing to the birds’ decline. Since then, fisheries have become better regulated, and local efforts are under way to curb predation. McClogan and Spurr have both noticed a boost in population because of the efforts.
The university added that should declines continue, the harvest levels may need to be reconsidered, but noted that Rakiura Māori had “demonstrated their ability to adapt” to changes.
The hunters keep a close eye on the birds’ wellbeing, so the resource and the custom can last for ever. “We manage these on behalf of our mokopuna’s mokopuna [grandchildren’s grandchildren],” Spurr says.
“Muttonbirding is just so culturally important – it is the essence of what makes us Ngāi Tahu.”