New Zealand’s annual bird popularity contest usually attracts little international interest, but a wily move by US-based comedian John Oliver has resulted in a tsunami of votes from around the globe.
In a hilarious 11-minute segment on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, Oliver appeared wearing a giant, feathered, pūteketeke costume, and called on viewers to vote for the obscure entry in the New Zealand Bird of the Year poll. Explaining he’d gone “absolutely nuclear” in his voting campaign, the Last Week Tonight star revealed his team had paid for campaign billboards in Wellington, Mumbai, Tokyo, Paris, London, Wisconsin and Rio de Janeiro.
“We realised it’s not just restricted to New Zealand, this contest, anyone can campaign for a bird. That seemed like a vulnerability in their system,” Oliver revealed on the show.
John Oliver predicts pūteketeke will have landslide win
Oliver has demonstrated an ongoing satirical affection for New Zealand, with the tiny nation featuring in many of his skits. Prior to entering the competition as campaign manager for the pūteketeke, he sought permission from conservation group Forest and Bird, who hosts the event.
Last year’s Bird of the Year winner received just 2800 votes, but Forest and Bird confirmed with Yahoo News Australia this year hundreds of thousands of people had already taken part in the 2023 poll dubbed Bird of the Century.
While the group was unable to reveal which direction the tally was leaning, it’s suspected the pūteketeke has taken the lead thanks largely to votes from the United States.
“I think it’s going to be a landslide victory. It is American money undermining a foreign election, what is there more to be proud about?” Oliver joked with Fallon.
But the chief executive of Forest and Bird, Nicola Toki, doesn’t think the self-appointed pūteketeke campaign manager should count his chickens before they hatch.
She believes all may not be lost for the other 70 competing birds, because their local campaign managers have now ramped up their efforts in New Zealand to try and beat the pūteketeke. “New Zealanders love to rise to a challenge and punch well above our weight,” Toki told Yahoo.
Other Bird of the Year controversies revealed
It’s not the first time controversy has rocked the Bird of the Year competition, and lighthearted memes and sledging on social media commonplace amongst campaigners.
“I’m still getting backlash because last year we kicked the kākāpō out of the event for being too popular,” Toki said. “And a couple of years ago a bat won.”
New Zealand's bird life facing 'real challenge'
Oliver thrusting the pūteketeke into the spotlight will likely be a good thing for the species, and New Zealand’s birdlife in general.
The nation has lost around 75 per cent of its forest cover and predators like the Australian brushtail possum and European stoats and ferrets have annihilated the country’s wildlife.
Prior to the arrival of humans, birds made up the majority of native species on its islands and they have struggled to survive the foreign pest invasion. Today, a staggering 82 per cent of the nation’s birds are now threatened with extinction.
The pūteketeke came close to being wiped out when its numbers plummeted to 200 in the 1980s. Thanks to conservation efforts, its population has grown to about 2000 across its homelands in New Zealand and Australia.
While the bird's gradual recovery is something to be proud of, Toki foresees an immediate problem that could threaten the pūteketeke and other native species.
The country’s newly elected centre-right government has flagged cuts to the Department of Conservation which manages the country’s remaining wildlife habitat.
“It’s going to be a real challenge for New Zealand. We sell ourselves to the world as a place that looks after its wildlife, but I worry we’re not putting our money where our mouth is,” Toki said.
If you'd like to vote in Bird of the Year you can do so here.
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