"They are weird, puking birds with colorful mullets. What's not to love here?"
The pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe won the election for New Zealand’s “Bird of the Century” after British-American comedian and political commentator John Oliver launched a self-described “alarmingly aggressive” campaign for the bird.
The pūteketeke is a diving water bird with a slim neck, sharp beak, and an orange mullet. The unusual birds stand out due to their “propensity for puking,” eating their own feathers to trigger their gag reflex and vomit out parasites.
“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 and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki in a statement. “We’re not surprised these charming characteristics caught the eye of an influential bird enthusiast with a massive following.”
Oliver contacted Forest and Bird, who hosts the competition, earlier this year to ask if he could campaign for a specific bird.
“I don’t think they understood quite what they were unleashing when they said, ‘Go for it,'” Oliver said on his show, “Last Week Tonight,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The odd habits of the pūteketeke seem to be what drew Oliver to the bird, including its vomiting and elaborate mating displays.
“They have a mating dance where they both grab a clump of wet grass and chest-bump each other before standing around, unsure of what to do next,” Oliver said on his show. “I have never identified with anything more.”
But Oliver also pointed out that the pūteketeke is a threatened species. It is estimated that the pūteketeke population has dipped below 1,000 in New Zealand.
Oliver went to some extreme and bizarre lengths to promote the bird, including wearing an oversized bird costume on his show, buying billboards in major cities across the world, putting up “Lord of the Wings” posters at bus stops in New Zealand, and even flying a plane with a pūteketeke over Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
“We promised controversy but didn’t quite expect this!” Toki said in the statement. “We’re stoked to see the outpouring of passion, creativity and debate that this campaign has ignited.”
Oliver’s aggressive campaigning led to a record-smashing number of votes, particularly for the pūteketeke. The total number of votes reached 350,000 across 195 countries, including 290,000 for the pūteketeke. The previous record was 56,733 votes in 2021, and the runner-up this year, the kiwi — New Zealand’s national bird — received just 12,904 votes.
“I think some of the campaign managers are feeling a little bit despondent about it. You know, he’s come in all guns blazing and hard to compete with. But with a bit of time, I’m sure they’ll see the fun in it,” Sam Taylor, who was the campaign manager for another bird, the kōkako, told CBC Radio. “It’s raising awareness for New Zealand’s native bird life. And that can only really help with the support that we need for the conservation here.”
According to Forest and Bird, more than 80% of native New Zealand birds are on the threatened or endangered species list and at risk of extinction. The pūteketeke is classified as “nationally vulnerable.”
New Zealand is unique in that birds became the dominant animals in the country before humans arrived.
“If you think about the wildlife in New Zealand, we don’t have lions and tigers and bears,” Toki told the Associated Press. “We have this intangible and extraordinarily powerful connection to our wildlife and our birds.”
Oliver’s campaign was not without its flaws, however. His advocacy led to thousands of fraudulent votes, including one individual who cast 40,000 votes for the eastern rockhopper penguin — a “hipster penguin,” according to Oliver.
The announcement of the winner was delayed by two full days after the record number of votes crashed the system.
“After all, this is what democracy is all about,” Oliver said on his show. “America interfering in foreign elections.”
The Bird of the Century election was a celebration of Forest and Bird’s 100th anniversary. The organization holds a “Bird of the Year” competition every year, but this year was special.
“There is frankly no bird on Earth more deserving of the title Bird of the Century than this one,” Oliver said. “They are weird, puking birds with colorful mullets. What’s not to love here?”
After reading about the puking bird who won New Zealand’s Bird of the Century title, read about the kakapo, the only flightless parrot who is on the verge of extinction in New Zealand. Or, read about the science start-up that hopes to bring the dodo back from extinction.