Bird of Century: Pūteketeke wins NZ poll after campaign by John Oliver

Bird of Century: Pūteketeke wins NZ poll after campaign by John Oliver
Bird of Century: Pūteketeke wins NZ poll after campaign by John Oliver

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - SYDNEY — The pūteketeke has been crowned New Zealand's Bird of the Century after US talk show host John Oliver's controversial intervention in the poll.

Oliver sparked a global frenzy with an "alarmingly aggressive" campaign for the vulnerable crested grebe.

Fewer than 3,000 of the native birds are estimated to remain in the wild.

The Bird of the Year contest has run for almost two decades, but this year's special poll attracted a record number of votes.

More than 350,000 ballots were cast from almost 200 countries, crashing the voting verification system, and delaying the result by two days.

"Congratulations to campaign manager John Oliver and all those who gave their support to the pūteketeke," New Zealand's incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon wrote on X.

The pūteketeke had begun as "an outside contender", according to Nicola Toki, from Forest and Bird, the environmental conservation organisation which runs the contest.

"But [it] was catapulted to the top spot thanks to its unique looks, adorable parenting style, and propensity for puking," she said.

It was those qualities that won over Oliver — host of the HBO show Last Week Tonight.

"They are weird puking birds with colourful mullets. What's not to love here?" Oliver said on his show last week, when launching the lake bird's campaign.

Oliver, who holds British and US citizenship, later turned up on fellow comedian Jimmy Fallon's chat show clad in a giant, feathered pūteketeke costume.

The comedian erected billboards in countries including New Zealand, Japan, France and the UK — dubbing the bird "Lord of the Wings" in reference to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy being filmed in New Zealand.

"This is what democracy is all about — America interfering in foreign elections," Oliver said.

But his campaign ruffled feathers in some circles, with a concerted effort by many in New Zealand to thwart what they perceived to be "American interference" in the bird election.

Supporters of the kakariki karaka — a green parakeet — put up billboards reading: "Dear John, don't disrupt the pecking order". Others begged people to vote for the kiwi, which Oliver had likened to "a rat carrying a toothpick".

Such was the intensity of the contest than some were moved to commit voter fraud. One supporter of the eastern rockhopper penguin — which Oliver dismissed as a "hipster penguin" — cast 40,000 votes for the bird. Another person, from Pennsylvania in the US, cast 3,403 votes — with one arriving every three seconds. Neither were included in the final count.

When the ballots were tallied, the pūteketeke — also known as the Australasian crested grebe — raked in more than 290,000 votes. In second place, with 22-times fewer votes — just 12,904 — was the kiwi. Rounding out the top five were the kea, kākāpō and the fantail.

It is not the first time the competition has been mired in controversy. There was an outcry last year when the kākāpō, the world's fattest parrot, was banned from competing because it was the only bird to win twice in the past. That followed the shock of 2021 when the crown of Bird of the Year was given to... a bat.

But while the level of controversy this year was unprecedented, Ms Toki said it was worthwhile as it had brought global attention to the plight of the country's birds.

"More than 80% of our native birds are on the threatened species list... the world is watching us and how we look after our birds." — BBC

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