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Bird of the Century: Pūteketeke crowned winner after John Oliver’s campaign

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Bird of the Century

Great crested grebe, Te Anau nest. Photo: Oscar Thomas

After an intense two-week battle, the pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe now wears the coveted Bird of the Century crown atop its burnt-orange mullet.

While it began as an outside contender, the native lake bird snagged the title with the backing of British-American comedian John Oliver, who declared his support at his HBO television show Last Week Tonight.

Oliver’s self-described “alarmingly aggressive” Bird of the Century campaign included billboards in Paris and Tokyo and a dramatic appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in full-on grebe garb.

In response to the perceived “American interference” in the bird election, Kiwis turned up at the polls.

“We promised controversy but didn’t quite expect this,” said Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki. “We’re stoked to see the outpouring of passion, creativity, and debate that this campaign has ignited.”

Oliver’s campaign caused quite a stir, with a surge in the votes causing a two-day delay in the announcement of the winner. A record 350,000 plus votes from 195 countries made 2023 the biggest ever for the annual competition.

“We’re blown away at the outpouring of attention from around the world for our awesome native birds,” said Toki. “A huge mihi to everyone who has voted, donated, or contributed to the kaupapa so far.

“Also, a big shout-out to our local campaign managers, who have gone into overdrive to raise the profile of their chosen candidate with flair, creativity, and laughs.”

Seventy-seven native manu were in the running for the coveted title this year, with the annual Bird of the Year temporarily rebranded as Bird of the Century to celebrate Forest & Bird’s 100th birthday.

Five extinct species were also added as candidates for the first time: the mātuhituhi bush wren, tutukiwi South Island snipe, huia, piopio, and whēkau laughing owl.

“We love seeing the passion and creativity that our native birds inspire,” Toki said. “Every year, we’re surprised and delighted by the birdy shenanigans and heartwarming kōrero that stem from Bird of the Year.

“More than 80% of our native birds are on the threatened species list, yet clearly these amazing species mean so much to us as New Zealanders.

“Pending cuts to the Department of Conservation, the agency tasked with protecting these taonga under threat, are a huge worry. The world is watching us and how we look after our birds.”

The pūteketeke has been classified as ‘Nationally Vulnerable’ and the New Zealand-wide population is thought to be fewer than 1000 birds. The species is also not faring well in Australia, with a combined population across the two countries perhaps fewer than 3000.

“But the situation was even more dire a few decades ago, with the pūteketeke population dropping to a low of just 200 in the 1980s. Efforts such as the Lake Wānaka Grebe Project, which started with Forest & Bird member John Darby building a floating nest platform in 2013, have seen pūteketeke begin to recover,” Forest & Bird said in a statement released.

“Pūteketeke deserve to be Bird of the Century in 2023 because their numbers have been slowly increasing, particularly in the upland Otago lakes,” said Petrina Duncan, the grebe coordinator for Forest & Bird’s Central Otago Lakes Branch. 

“It’s great to have a successful bird as an ambassador for all New Zealand birds to show that even threatened species can bounce back if we give them a hand.”   

The pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe received 290,374 votes in total, followed by the North Island brown kiwi (12,904 votes), kea (12,060 votes), kākāpō (10,889 votes), and pīwakawaka fantail (7857 votes).

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