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Mutton birds head south

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Mutton birds are amazing. Each year mutton birds travel halfway around the world on a two-month journey from their Alaskan wintering grounds to raise a single chick in Australia.

Eurobodalla Council’s sustainability officer Emma Patyus said it was an enormous undertaking for the half kilo mutton birds, more properly called short-tailed shearwaters.

“The migration requires huge amounts of energy reserves, and many die along the way due to exhaustion, illness or bad weather,” she said.

“That’s how most Aussies notice the arrival of these birds – when carcasses of the unsuccessful birds wash up on the beach. It’s one of the signals that tells avian researchers the mutton birds got enough feed in Alaska to even make it to Australia.

Emma said spring was the time to be seeing mutton birds along Eurobodalla’s coast, but experts from Birdlife Australia had reported a significant decline in bird numbers reaching Australia this year.

“The ornithologists reported warming ocean temperatures had resulted in a dire shortage of marine prey for the birds while in Alaska. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, many thousands of the birds died of starvation before they even got underway.”

“Put simply – many thousands of the birds did not have the food or energy to fly south this year.”

Emma said there will still be mutton birds – alive and dead – just not in the usual numbers.

“Dead birds are present on beaches and should be left in situ, letting nature take its course,” she said, emphasising live birds were best helped by keeping disturbance to a minimum.

“Stay a good distance away from recovering birds, keep pets restrained, and keep beaches, foreshores and waterways litter free. Let’s give the chicks that hatch this year the very best start before they head to Alaska at summer’s end.”