Warren Skerrett: Ka tangi te titi – the call of the muttonbird


OPINION: The ancient tradition of harvesting muttonbirds by Maori families has just commenced.

This tradition goes back hundreds of years, to families (whakapapa) descended from tribal chiefs.

Long before Europeans (pakeha) invaded our shores, there were no tools or crops to help them survive the south’s harsh winter, as sweet potatoes (kumara) only grew as far south as Christchurch.

They had to rely on scarce birds such as the weka (wood hen) and anything else that moved and could be eaten.

Muttonbirds (titi) live almost all their life at sea. But around October each year, millions migrate south from North America to breed on southern islands, off Stewart Island.

That’s because of the islands’ soft peat in which to burrow, strong sea winds enabling them to fly from, and exposure to rich southern seafood in the sub-Antarctic seas.

Around April, their parents have fattened and weaned the juveniles, which leave the burrows.

The juveniles’ natural instinct is to then come out at night to fly to sea. Guess who’s waiting for them?

Only the juveniles are taken, leaving the parents to breed, and most of the juveniles also make it to sea, enabling the replenishing of stock.

The titi was a rich and plentiful source of protein which was highly treasured by the native South Island Maori, enabling them to thrive in the south.

For hundreds of years in April, the southern Maori travelled by boat (waka) to the islands, to harvest titi.

Once caught, the feathers, down, feet and wings are removed, then packed in to hollowed-out kelp bags (poha).

The poha bags were then wrapped with manuka sticks, to strengthen them, and transported back to the mainland.

There they were buried in the ground, to keep them cool and airtight, to be extracted during the winter, when food was scarce.

The Whakatipu was a favoured storage area because of the cold.

Muttonbirds are rich in omega oil, being fish consumers, which makes them ideal for preserving.

Hence why they were such an important form of survival for the southern Maori.

The tradition of harvesting them each year still carries on today, albeit with a little more comfort.

Only families with descending rights (whakapapa) from ancient chiefs (rangatira) are permitted on the islands.

This permission is fiercely protected.

One part of the Taukihepa/Big South Cape Island is called Murderers Cove – where the last white man stepped ashore.

Warren Skerrett is an authorised financial adviser and a trustee on the Community Trust of Southland and Whakatipu