I know that bird!
Oh wait, it’s John Oliver.
The other day this appeared in my newsfeed: “With a boost from John Oliver, pūteketeke soars to first in New Zealand bird contest”. A news headline about celebrities? Whatever. A news headline about birds?! You have my attention, NPR.
This week the distinctive, mullet-headed Pūteketeke was named 2023 New Zealand Bird of the Century. And if birds gave acceptance speeches, comedian/late-night host John Oliver would be first on this one’s list.
Since 2005, Forest & Bird, an Aotearoa New Zealand environmental organization, has held an annual Bird of the Year contest to raise awareness of endangered and threatened birds. Environmental organizations, companies, high school clubs, radio stations, and more lead campaigns for each species, and anyone can vote for their favorites (it’s ranked choice!). In fact, in 2021, an endangered bat won. That’s right, the long-tailed bat, a mammal, was named Bird of the Year.
This year is the organization’s 100th anniversary (hence Bird of the Century), and with Forest & Bird’s permission, Last Week Tonight show host John Oliver became the official campaigner for the Pūteketeke. And he committed.
Global marketing campaign, billboards, an amazing pūteketeke bird suit worn on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The Pūteketeke broke voting records and Forest & Bird had to delay the winner announcement two days to count and verify. Once the counting was over, the Pūteketeke (also known as the Australasian Crested Grebe or Great Crested Grebe) became the first lake bird to win Bird of the Year.
I was a bit disappointed I missed the bird hoopla. I might have voted for the Hoiho (Yellow-eyed penguin), but that’s another whole post.
In the words of Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki: “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.”
Here’s where it gets more exciting for me: I knew this bird before it was famous! I was lucky enough to see Pūteketeke in New Zealand back in September, before they hit the big time and the late night talk show circuit. Now I feel like I’ve glimpsed a celebrity.
There it was, my very first Pūteketeke, swimming by our Lake McGregor campsite, amid Kakīānaus (Black swans) and Australian coots:
Days later a lone Pūteketeke greeted the morning across from a campsite on Lake Hāwea:
Then this adorable courting couple in Lake Wakatipu by another campsite! Sorry, no birds chest bumped or puked:
Non-New Zealander Oliver may have ruffled a few feathers with his self-described “alarmingly aggressive” involvement (dive into the online comments, if you wish). However, whatever bird he championed—Pūteketeke, kiwi, Tawaki, Tomtit—he got more people thinking about threats to declining wildlife. As a Pūteketeke-suited Oliver said to Fallon, “we’re all learning more about birds than we thought we were going to tonight.”
Awareness and fun campaigns alone won’t save birds. But, in addition to laughs, they could lead to more predator traps, support for conservation, and a reminder that none of us need be talk show hosts to speak up for birds. Nor do we need extravagant bird costumes, though that could be amazing.
This contest has me wondering: If we held a similar one in the United States, for which Maine bird would I vote? Bicknell’s Thrush? Piping Plover? And if I had to dress as a bird before millions, which would I pick? I’m thinking the Atlantic Puffin.