Mutton-Loving Mountain Parrots of New Zealand

A parrot that favors mutton? Seems like the stuff of fable. Unfortunately for New Zealand farmers, the kea, or mountain parrot, was all too real. An 1882 edition of Littell’s Living Age reports on a “carnivorous parrot, whose love of animal flesh manifests itself in a very decided predilection for mutton.” Living high in wooded glens and recesses, this avian marauder is nocturnal, striking out only at night to nosh sheeps’ tenderest bits, the fat surrounding their kidneys.

The mountain parrot inflicts wounds of most astonishing cruelty, leaving “the poor animals to linger on or die in excruciating agony.” Yet it once was a peace-loving fructarian. The Maori knew it as “innocent and harmless in its habits, as respects its food.” It was not until higher tracts of country were colonized by early settlers and transformed into pasturage that the once mild-mannered mountain parrot’s tastes began to incline to the ovine. The farmers noticed that “many sheep were suffering from sores or scars, more or less recent, on the back, immediately in front of the hips.” And these winged creatures were in their discernment veritable gourmets, preying only on those animals in the “best condition.”

The factors that made this erstwhile herbivore turn hunter remain one of history’s mysteries. Some speculate that severe winters forced it to search for food among the sheep stations. Whatever the reason, the New Zealand kea evolved into an “altogether a remarkable and curious bird” whose “vegetarian tastes seem almost completely eradicated, for it will not touch bread, though it likes the seed of sow thistle.”

Should harsh conditions saddle you with a hankering for a hunk of ewe, try this recipe for minced mutton and cucumber from the 1865 cookbook What to Do with the Cold Mutton: A Book of Réchauffés.

Minced Mutton with Cucumber

Mince rather small as much cold roast or boiled mutton as you require, freeing it from skin and sinew. Pare a large-sized cucumber, take out the seeds, and cut it up into pieces about half an inch square; stew them in a little savory brown sauce, and, when tender, add the minced mutton and a little thickening if needed; let the mutton heat through, stirring well to mix thoroughly with the cucumber, and serve it piled high on a dish with neatly-cut pieces of fried bread round it.

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