Celebrity Campaign Shines Spotlight on New Zealand Bird Contest


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Like so many modern elections, the poll to decide New Zealand’s favorite bird has, in past years, been beset by accusations of vote rigging, foreign influence and debates about candidates’ eligibility.

But this year, the Bird of the Century contest has experienced its biggest controversy yet. The polling verification system was overwhelmed with an influx of votes after the American comedian John Oliver ran a self-described “alarmingly aggressive” campaign for the little-known pūteketeke — also known as the Australasian crested grebe — which he described as “weird puking birds with colorful mullets.”

Mr. Oliver paid for billboard advertisements in a number of countries including New Zealand, France, Japan and the United States, encouraging residents to vote in the poll — which is not restricted to New Zealanders.

“This is what democracy is all about: America interfering in foreign elections,” Mr. Oliver said on his weekly show, “Last Week Tonight.” He also highlighted some of the unique traits of the species, including carrying their young on their back and a mating dance in which “they both grab a clump of wet grass and chest bump each other before standing around unsure of what to do next.”

On Wednesday, Forest and Bird, the nonprofit that runs the contest, announced that the pūteketeke had won with over 290,000 votes — over 24 times more votes than the runner-up.

The poll has run since 2005 and is a testament to New Zealanders’ love for their native birds — many of which are unique to the nation and are under threat from introduced species. Last year, the contest received nearly 52,000 votes, compared to this year’s 350,000.

The overseas interference ruffled some feathers locally, with one company decrying it as tantamount to Russian interference in U.S. elections. And with the pūteketeke little known even within New Zealand — “chances are, especially if you live in the north, you’ve never heard of it,” according to an article from the local media outlet RNZ, referring to the country’s North Island — its victory has baffled even some of its biggest domestic supporters.

“Under normal circumstances, we would not have come anywhere near becoming Bird of the Year or Bird of the Century,” said John Darby, a retired zoologist who has played a key role in helping the species recover over the past decade.

“In some ways it’s rather nice, but I feel a bit guilty,” he said. “There’s so many other birds, possibly some of them more deserving.” He cited as examples the kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird and the runner-up of the poll, or endangered species whose conservation efforts would be bolstered by a higher profile.

Although the pūteketeke is also a threatened species, its numbers have steadily grown because of a concentrated effort from conservationists. New Zealand is home to about 1,000 of them — up from 200 in the 1980s. “We now have a reasonable understanding of the conservation needs of the species, and a program,” Mr. Darby said.

He explained that the bird vomits because “it is a fish-eating bird, yet the ability of it to eat fish with bones without injuring itself is limited.” To prevent injury, it swallows its own feathers to line its digestive system, eventually forming pellets that are regurgitated.

Because of the way its legs are situated, the pūteketeke effectively cannot walk on land and builds floating nests on lakes. Unlike other birds that brood their young by crouching over them, the pūteketeke carries its offspring on its back so that, Mr. Darby believes, if there’s a threat to the parents, “they are able to simply fall off the nest with their chicks to the safety of the lake.”

In addition to threats from predators and habitat clearing, the birds’ floating nests have been vulnerable to the rise and fall of lake levels, Mr. Darby said. In 2013, he started building a floating nest platform on a local lake, hoping it would provide a safer breeding place, a move that is now credited as a key initiative that helped the bird population recover.

Now for this week’s stories:

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