New Zealand has crowned a bird that grunts, pukes and has a highly unusual repertoire of mating rituals as its bird of the century.
The announcement for the annual two-week contest’s winner was delayed by two days after the competition was inundated with votes, following Oliver’s announcement during an episode of Last Week Tonight in the US, that he was appointing himself the official campaign manager for the pūteketeke.
His campaign included buying up billboards in New Zealand, Japan, France, the UK, India and the US state of Wisconsin. A plane with a pūteketeke campaign banner also flew over the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Oliver then appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon dressed in a pūteketeke costume to promote the bird.
The pūteketeke is known for carrying its young on its back, sharing chick-rearing responsibilities, and eating its own feathers to induce vomiting as a method to expel parasites. It has a chorus of grunts, growls and barks and engages in an elaborate set of mating dances, including the “weed dance” where the birds offer each other water weed and the “ghostly penguin” where they rise chest to chest.
The competition, run by environmental organisation Forest & Bird, normally attracts just under 60,000 votes but this year those figures leapt to 350,000 across 195 countries, with 290,374 of those going to the pūteketeke. Thousands of fraudulent votes had to be weeded out, including 40,000 votes cast by a single person for the tawaki piki toka eastern rockhopper penguin.
“Pūteketeke began as an outside contender for Bird of the Century but was catapulted to the top spot thanks to its unique looks, adorable parenting style, and propensity for puking,” said Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki.
“We’re not surprised these charming characteristics caught the eye of an influential bird enthusiast with a massive following.”
The pūteketeke nests on lakes in the southern part of the South Island and is considered nationally vulnerable. A conservation project started in the 2013 has helped increase the population from a low of 200 in the 1980s to just under 1,000 today.
Oliver’s self-described “alarmingly aggressive” campaign for the bird thwarted efforts from local groups, including primary schools and universities, attempting to push their preferred feathery friends to the top of the leaderboard.
“They are weird puking birds with colourful mullets. What’s not to love here?” said Oliver of the bird.
The competition was launched in 2005 to raise awareness about the plight of New Zealand’s native birds, many of which are threatened, on the brink of extinction or already extinct due to the introduction of pests, human activity and declining habitats.
This year, the organisers included five extinct species on the list and temporarily altered the competition to bird of the century, to mark the organisation’s centenary.
“More than 80% of our native birds are on the threatened species list”, Toki said.
“Pending cuts to the Department of Conservation, the agency tasked with protecting these taonga [treasures] under threat, are a huge worry,” she said. “The world is watching us and how we look after our birds.”
Over the years, the contest has become a lightening-rod for controversy, from crowning a bat the winner in 2021, to accusations of Russian interference in 2019, and claims Australians attempted to rig the contest in favour of the shag in 2018.
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