New Zealand's Bird of the Year contest provokes controversy following international 'interference'

Comedian John Oliver has seemingly come between New Zealanders and their beloved Kiwi bird, as his pointed campaign has seen the pūteketeke named New Zealand's Bird of the Century.

The pūteketeke has been named New Zealand's Bird of the Century, stealing the top spot from national animal, and 2009 champion, the kiwi, following a campaign by comedian John Oliver.

Oliver decided to lobby on behalf of the pūteketeke, a vibrantly-coloured, mullet-donning bird, through his HBO show Last Week Tonight, a global billboard campaign and an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show.

“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, adding that he had never identified with something so strongly.

A billboard for The Lord of the Wings was erected in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, while campaign posters were also put up across Paris, Tokyo, London and Mumbai. Oliver even commissioned a plane to fly over a beach in Brazil with a banner encouraging people to vote for the great crested grebe.

The pūteketeke won New Zealand's Bird of the Year contest after a relentless advertising campaign by comedian John Oliver. Credit: AP

The Bird of the Year contest, this year titled Bird of the Century, saw a record number of votes, with more than 350,000 verified votes from 195 countries, delaying the results announcement by two days.

“After all, this is what democracy is all about,” Oliver said on his show. “America interfering in foreign elections.”

Thousands of fraudulent votes were reportedly discarded during the vote-counting process this year, including 40,000 votes cast by a single person for the tawaki piki toka eastern rockhopper penguin.

The avian contest is arranged by Forest & Bird, an independent conservation organisation that looks "to raise awareness for [New Zealand's] native wildlife, their habitats, and the threats they face."

“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,” Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki said in a press release.  

John Oliver had pūteketeke billboards erected in Wellington, London, Tokyo, Paris and Mumbai. Credit: AP

The North Island brown kiwi came second in this year's ranking, followed by the kea, which is a species of large parrot.

The contest has run since 2005, and this year's isn't the first to have caused a flap.

In 2020, election scrutineers discarded around 1,500 fraudulent votes for the little spotted kiwi, while a bat stole the crown in 2021, despite protests that it was not a bird. The bat retained its title though, as it is considered part of the bird family by indigenous Maori people.

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