Nigel Hiller-Garvey has been volunteering with the WIRES group for six years.

Baby birds fight off rats, cats, dogs and cars for survival

2nd May 2018 3:01 PM
UPDATED 3rd May 6:53 AM
Premium Content Subscriber only

IN the fading sun, Coffs Harbour's most disorientated delinquents are returned home with a toss any rugby league player would be proud of.

These are not wayward teens, but meandering muttonbirds who have been attracted by the bright lights of the marina.

On the shore or in the marina, the plump little birds, heavy with their soggy down feathers, become trapped without the waves they need to launch them on their 6000km journey back to their parents.

Each night and morning, a group of volunteer animal rescuers sweep through the marina and surrounding beach and roads looking for the juvenile wedge-tailed shearwaters who will otherwise drown, be hit by cars or be taken by animals.

They are carefully weighed, inspected for injuries, tagged with a little nail varnish for identification and put in cardboard boxes to be returned to the burrows at night. 

They are not fed because they need to remain hungry to be motivated enough to begin their epic journey to be reunited with their parents.

They are literally tossed several metres from the pathway on the top of the island to the grassland concealing the burrows.

Muttonbird Island is home to thousands of the shearwaters, so called for their ability to cut or shear the water with their wings as they skim across the surface.

The nine hectare island is also home to thousands of rats, who target the eggs and young chicks, along with giant sea eagles.

Balancing the equation a little are black winged kites who target the rats.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has also been laying baits, but in recent times the rats, some of which are huge, haven't been taking them.


WIRES volunteers returning wayward juvenile muttonbirds to Muttonbird Island at Coffs Harbour.
WIRES volunteers returning wayward juvenile muttonbirds to Muttonbird Island at Coffs Harbour.

This year, more than 85 birds have been rescued and rehomed by volunteers from the Mid North Coast branch of the WIRES (Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service) rescue group.

Nigel Hiller-Garvey, who has been volunteering with the group for six years, said in previous years, hundreds of muttonbirds had been rescued. In big blows, some have been found as many as 30 to 40 kilometres inland.

Volunteer numbers this year have swelled to about 60, making the task of rescuing and returning the juveniles more manageable.

"This is our baby every year,'' Nigel says with pride.

"The muttonbirds are synonymous with Coffs Harbour.''

He says the birds are feisty by nature - they have to be just to survive on the island.

"They are tough animals.

"They leave here at three or four months old and they fly 6000 kilometres to catch up with their parents. They have to be tough feisty birds.''

WIRES volunteers returning wayward juvenile muttonbirds to Muttonbird Island at Coffs Harbour.
WIRES volunteers returning wayward juvenile muttonbirds to Muttonbird Island at Coffs Harbour.

But he says the birds are not all the same, often displaying different personalities.

"Some of them are quite gentle and they know you are trying to help them.

"Some of them will fight like mad."


One of the beautiful little muttonbirds.
One of the beautiful little muttonbirds.

But when they are rescued they often exhausted and just happy to have some respite from potential predators.
Muttonbirds spend the Australian winter in southeast Asia before making the pilgrimage back to the same burrow in August every year to raise new chicks.


WIRES ask that anyone finding an exhausted or injured muttonbird to follow the rescue tips below:

Approach quietly from behind;

Encircle body and wings with a towel, keeping clear of the beak;

Place in a cardboard box and keep in a quiet location out of the sun;

Do not feed the bird or give water

Deliver the bird to any of the specified drop-off points where boxes for the birds will be provided.

The drop-off points are the Fishermen's Co-op, Galley Café next to Fishermen's Co-op, the Coffs Harbour Yacht Club under the entry stairs, the Deep Sea Fishing Club and the Coffs Coast office of the National Parks and Wildlife service at 32 Marina Drive.

Volunteers will collect the birds twice a day from these drop off points. If you have any questions or aren't comfortable rescuing the bird call WIRES on 1300 094 737.

WIRES volunteers returning wayward juvenile muttonbirds to Muttonbird Island at Coffs Harbour.
WIRES volunteers returning wayward juvenile muttonbirds to Muttonbird Island at Coffs Harbour.


The public is invited to meet volunteers at 4.45pm behind the Galley Café in the Marina to learn more about our local shearwaters. The group will march up Muttonbird Island to release the rescued birds.

Before attending, those interested are asked to have a look on the shearwater facebook page to ensure there are birds ready for release that day:

If you are interested in becoming a wildlife rescue volunteer, please consider joining WIRES. There is a training course in Coffs Harbour at the end of May.

For more information about WIRES training or Shearwaters please visit the shearwater facebook page or email

The Aboriginal legend of Muttonbird Island

Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve  is enveloped by spectacular views from coast to islands.

The island is one of the only easily-accessible places in NSW where the migratory wedge-tailed shearwater nests. It is also an important Aboriginal place, harbouring stories of the Dreaming.

The Island is a sacred site of the Gumbaynggirr people, who call it Giidany Miirlarl, which
means 'moon sacred place'.

The traditional story tells of the moon, who is the guardian of the island, keeping birds there for the Gumbaynggirr people to hunt for food. The guardian does not allow too many to be hunted so that there would be enough for future generations.

It is said that when the full moon returns each month, it renews life to the plants and animals.

The moon uses the tides, riptides and floods against those who do not respect the Aboriginal lore.