The pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe has won Bird of the Century 2023.
After a two-week battle of the birds that will go down in history, the pūteketeke now wears the coveted Bird of the Century crown atop its burnt-orange mullet.
“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,” says Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki.
“We’re not surprised these charming characteristics caught the eye of an influential bird enthusiast with a massive following.”
The native lake bird awkwardly danced its way to snag the title with the backing of British-American comedian John Oliver, along with his HBO television show Last Week Tonight and a giant pūteketeke puppet.
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.
Pūteketeke causes a right flap
In response to the perceived “American interference” in the bird election, New Zealanders turned out at the polls in force.
New Zealand media pulled out all the stops to drum up support for other species and local campaign managers pivoted their efforts to riff off the unexpected development with flair.
“We promised controversy but didn’t quite expect this! We’re stoked to see the outpouring of passion, creativity and debate that this campaign has ignited,” says Ms Toki.
“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.”
Underbird in trouble
The pūteketeke is one such bird under threat, with a classification of ‘Nationally Vulnerable’ and New Zealand-wide population thought to be fewer than 1,000 birds. The species is also not faring well in Australia, with a combined population across the two countries perhaps less than 3,000.
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.
"Pūteketeke deserve to be Bird of the Century in 2023 because their numbers have been slowly increasing, particularly in the upland Otago lakes,” says 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.”
Today, the Lake Wānaka Grebe Project has 15 active nest platforms and a team of volunteers. Over the last decade, they have seen more than 500 grebe chicks hatch and fledge.
Unprecedented voting surge delays winner announcement
A record 350,000+ verified votes from 195 countries make 2023 the biggest year ever for the annual Bird of the Year competition, which has run since 2005. The previous record was 56,733 verified votes in 2021.
After Oliver launched this high-powered campaign, the voting verification system temporarily crashed, leading to a two-day delay to the winner announcement.
Since voting closed at 5.00pm NZDT on Sunday 12 November, Forest & Bird have been channeling the speed of the kārearea New Zealand falcon to sort through the votes.
Forty-five valid votes were cast by people giving the name John Oliver, all for the pūteketeke except one, which was for the New Zealand fairy tern.
Thousands of fraudulent votes have been discarded during the vote counting process.
This included 40,000 votes cast by a single person for the tawaki piki toka eastern rockhopper penguin. The individual appears to have been inspired by the rockhopper appearing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Despite Oliver’s dismissal of the 'hipster penguin’, this was the most popular second-choice bird among those who voted for the pūteketeke.
Another person from Pennsylvania cast 3,403 fraudulent votes, with one arriving every three seconds.
"We know birds inspire incredible passion, but we encourage people to channel that passion into productive efforts rather than trying to rig an election,” says Ms Toki.
“Doing your bit for the birds could be as simple as keeping your cat in at night, donating a predator trap through Give a Trap, or adding your voice to Forest & Bird’s collective call-to-action for birds, and for te taiao in New Zealand.”
1. Pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe: 290,374 votes
2. North Island brown kiwi: 12,904 votes
3. Kea: 12,060 votes
4. Kākāpō: 10,889 votes
5. Pīwakawaka Fantail: 7,857 votes
6. Tawaki piki toka Eastern rockhopper penguin: 6,763 votes
7. Karure | Kakaruia Black robin: 6,753 votes
8. Huia: 6,467 votes
9. Tūī: 6,457 votes
10. Takahē: 6,292 votes