John Oliver’s Campaign Catapults Pūteketeke to Victory in New Zealand’s Bird of the Century Contest

In a remarkable twist to New Zealand’s Bird of the Year contest, the Pūteketeke, a vulnerable crested grebe, emerged as the Bird of the Century, largely thanks to a global campaign spearheaded by British-American comedian John Oliver.

The contest, which has been a tradition for nearly two decades, saw an unprecedented number of votes, surpassing 350,000 from nearly 200 countries. Oliver’s “alarmingly aggressive” campaign tactics, including billboards and television appearances, swayed public opinion and voting patterns globally, reports the BBC.

Pūteketeke are notable for their striking plumage and elegant necks.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Bernard Spragg. NZ, License: CC0 1.0 DEED
Pūteketeke are notable for their striking plumage and elegant necks.

The Pūteketeke’s Rise to Fame

Initially an outsider, the Pūteketeke won the hearts of many through its unique characteristics and endearing parenting behavior. Nicola Toki, from Forest and Bird, the organization running the contest, attributed the bird’s success to its “unique looks, adorable parenting style, and propensity for puking.”

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

Oliver himself was charmed by these traits, referring to the Pūteketeke as “weird puking birds with colorful mullets” during his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

Global Engagement and Controversy

Oliver’s involvement in the campaign was not without its controversies. While it brought international attention to New Zealand’s native birds, some locals viewed it as American interference in their avian election.

Campaigns for other birds, like the kakariki karaka and kiwi, responded with their own billboards and statements opposing Oliver’s influence, reports The Washington Post. The contest saw an overwhelming number of votes overall, but the Pūteketeke won by a significant margin, garnering over 290,000 of those votes.

“We don’t need the Electoral Commission sticking their beaks into our ballots,” Toki said in a news release. “We can ensure the integrity of the Bird of the Century election results in just two extra days.”

The Pūteketeke is a species of crested grebe native to New Zealand.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / JJ Harrison
The Pūteketeke is a species of crested grebe native to New Zealand.

Conservation Awareness and Impact

The Bird of the Century contest, beyond being a popular vote, serves a critical role in raising awareness about the conservation status of New Zealand’s native birds. Over 80% of these species are on the threatened list, The Guardian reports.

“Bird of the Century is a phenomenon because we have people from all walks of life making noise about birds – whether they’re kids making bird art, businesses doing their bit for biodiversity, or community groups staging grassroots events,” Toki said.

The Pūteketeke’s victory shines a spotlight on its vulnerable status and the broader conservation efforts needed to protect such species.

As noted by Petrina Duncan, Forest and Bird’s grebe coordinator, the bird’s success as an ambassador can demonstrate that “even threatened species can bounce back if we give them a hand.”

John Oliver's campaign significantly boosted global awareness of the Pūteketeke.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Alexis Lours
John Oliver’s campaign significantly boosted global awareness of the Pūteketeke.

Past Controversies and Future Outlook

The Bird of the Year contest has a history of controversies, including fraudulent votes and unexpected winners like a bat. However, this year’s contest, with its heightened global visibility, underscores the importance of environmental conservation and the role of popular culture in influencing public opinion and awareness.

The Pūteketeke’s win is not just proof of Oliver’s campaigning skills but also a beacon of hope for conservationists and bird lovers worldwide.

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