New Zealand’s Bird of the Year contest, hosted by New Zealand’s Forest & Bird is a beloved event that draws attention to bird and wildlife conservation in New Zealand by highlighting the island nation’s rich avian wildlife. For such a worthy and noble cause, the contest has been the subject of a surprising amount of controversy. In 2022, the contest made waves by banning the Kakapo from participating. This charming chubby green terrestrial parrot was excluded on the grounds that it is too popular and there are many other species in more desperate need of attention. Similarly, in 2021, the contest found its way into the headlines by crowning an endangered bat as the winner.
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When it was first announced, this year’s event promised a similarly unique and dramatic contest. As an acknowledgement of Forest & Bird’s centennial anniversary, the contest was extended to include extinct entries. The so-called “Bird of the Century” candidates included many of the usual suspects, along with birds like the Laughing Owl, which was last spotted in 1914.
Despite the unusual inclusion of these extinct species, this year’s winner is the Puteketeke AKA the Australasian Crested Grebe. In a lineup filled with colorful parrots and dearly missed extinct birds, the Australasian Crested Grebe started off as quite the underdog.
The Puteketeke is perhaps best known for carrying its chicks on its back, performing elaborate courtship dances, and inducing vomiting to rid itself of parasites. These unique behaviors help the Puteketeke stand out, but they were not enough to win the contest.
The Australasian Crested Grebe’s win was earned through what can only be described as foreign interference. In an absurdly theatrical twist, the Puteketeke secured victory thanks to comedian and late night talk show host, John Oliver. Oliver overwhelmed the competition with an aggressive campaign advertising the Puteketeke internationally, with billboards and aerial banners in several locales including Paris, Tokyo, and Brazil. Oliver even made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in a flamboyant Puteketeke costume.
Despite being a New Zealand-based competition, the Bird of the Year (or century in this case) allows for voting from all over the world. This meant that Oliver’s foreign interference resulted in an unprecedented surge in votes, most favoring the Australasian Crested Grebe. In the end, the victorious Puteketeke received 290,374 votes, more than 20 times the votes received by the runner up.
Although the source of the Puteketeke’s victory may be scandalous, it is still a deserved win. This bird is considered nationally vulnerable in New Zealand. It’s current population is thought to number less than 1,000 individual birds which, while low, is a huge improvement from historical lows. The awareness brought on by its win will likely help to aid in its recovery.
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