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Kakapo Banned From Competing in New Zealand’s Bird of the Year Contest

Kakapo. Maud Island, New Zealand.

Voting opened just this week to determine New Zealand’s favorite bird for the year of 2022. Amongst penguins, terns, petrels, and many different types of parrots, one New Zealand favorite is conspicuously missing from this year’s vote.

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The Kākāpō is a large flightless parrot with brilliant green feathers and a charming owlish face. In recent years, the bird has become somewhat of a symbol for avian conservation efforts in New Zealand and around the globe. Severely threatened by cat predation and habitat loss, the current wild population of these forest-dwelling parrots is just over two hundred birds.

So why would a bird as endangered as the Kakapo be disqualified from the “Bird of the Year” vote? It is simply too popular. New Zealand is often referred to as the “Land of the Birds.” Unfortunately, though, a great many of New Zealand’s birds are endangered to some extent, with many species being critically endangered and facing the very real possibility of extinction.

The Kakapo is, of course, one of the birds for whom extinction is a very real possibility. And yet, unlike so many other New Zealand birds, the Kakapo is the subject of intense popularity and focus. From cute and charismatic moments in nature documentaries to monumental conservation efforts, the Kakapo is certainly receiving the awareness and efforts of the public. Whether it will all be enough to pull this bird back from the brink is impossible to say.

This is exactly the reason that the Kakapo is barred from the competition for New Zealand’s 2022 Bird of the Year. With the Kakapo having already won the contest twice in 2008 and 2020, conservation group Forest & Bird is urging voters to allow a new endangered “underbird” a chance to shine. The competition this year highlights several “hidden gems” of New Zealand, species which are often overlooked or not mentioned when conservation is discussed. Barring the Kakapo from this year’s proceedings furthers the possibility that an “underbird” might take the crown and spread a little bit of awareness to its unique conservation plight. Birds like the Reef Heron, Wrybill, and Black Stilt have a much better chance of receiving much needed support if awareness is spread beyond the more popular choices.

Wrybill, Anarhynchus frontalis, New Zealand, December 2010
“Underbird” Wrybill, Anarhynchus frontalis, New Zealand, December 2010. Photo by Renke Lühken. Supplied via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 2.0

Of course, the Kakapo has not been permanently banned from the competition. In future years, the Kakapo may be allowed to enter the vote once again. Highlighting the plights of less popular birds is important, but ultimately the Kakapo remains one of the most critically endangered birds around. The fact that it is so popular with voters is a very strong sign that interest in this bird will continue and fuel conservation efforts throughout the difficult road ahead.

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