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Unbelievable figures revealed in pūteketeke's landslide Bird of the Century win

Lillie Rohan,
Publish Date
Wed, 15 Nov 2023, 1:54pm

Unbelievable figures revealed in pūteketeke's landslide Bird of the Century win

Lillie Rohan,
Publish Date
Wed, 15 Nov 2023, 1:54pm

After perhaps the most intense election Forest & Bird’s annual Bird of the Year competition has ever seen, we finally have our winner - the one, the only, the pūteketeke.

Appearing on TVNZ’s Breakfast, Nicola Toki from Forest & Bird had the honour of announcing the winner - not before addressing the “mass voter fraud” that occurred though.

Speaking to Anna Burns-Francis, Toki revealed more than 700,000 people from 195 countries voted in this year’s election, which “complicated things enormously”. Especially as one very enthusiastic person in Pennsylvania put in 3403 votes - equating to one every three seconds.

Unfortunately for the bird lover, they were disqualified. But it’s not all bad news, over 350,000 voters did things the right way and were able to be verified, giving us our winner.

Toki announced that the winner of this year’s Bird of the Century contest is the pūteketeke.

Here’s everything you need to know about the ‘nationally vulnerable’ bird:

Landslide win

A pair of pūteketeke (Australasian crested grebes) swim in a lake at Groynes Park in Christchurch. Photo / Getty Images

A pair of pūteketeke (Australasian crested grebes) swim in a lake at Groynes Park in Christchurch. Photo / Getty Images

Before we get into the get-to-know-each-other stage of this article, it would be rude not to touch on just how popular the pūteketeke was with bird enthusiasts this year.

Whether it was the passionate campaign by talk show host John Oliver, or the bird winning on its own merits, it took out a landslide win, earning 290,374 votes overall.

Coming in second place was New Zealand’s iconic bird, the North Island brown kiwi, with a significantly-less 12,904 votes, while the kea earned a total of 12,060 votes.

Bird of the Century vote count:

  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

Origin story

Also known as the Australasian crested grebe, the water bird is found in Europe and central Asia, Africa, southern Australia and New Zealand. Their New Zealand population is only found in the South Island as they are extinct in the North Island (although on a very rare occasion, the bird can be seen there).

Mostly spotted in water - unless they are clambering onto their nests on the lake shore - the pūteketeke can be seen in 100 lakes, from small tarns to large glacial lakes, with their strongholds in the Canterbury and Otago high country. However, they are rarely seen in Nelson, Marlborough, West Coast and Fiordland.

During the winter, the pūteketeke migrate from small frozen lakes to larger ones. They are also known to migrate from the high country to coastal Canterbury.

Looks and behaviour

Thanks to its moderate size and water-loving nature, the pūteketeke can often be mistaken for waterfowl or shags at a distance. However, according to the NZ Birds Online website, the bird can be identified for its “long, slender neck, fine black bill and head with a distinctive black double crest and bright chestnut and black cheek frills”.

It’s known for its complex and bizarre mating displays which include “head shaking” - showing off their head crests, the “weed dance” - where they dive and offer each other water weed - and the “ghostly penguin” where they rise chest to chest while walking on water, and the growling cat display.

The bird has also been admired by bird enthusiasts for the unusual way it carries its young on its back when swimming. Speaking of their young, the bird’s breeding season occurs between September and March, with their nests reportedly being comprised of sticks and waterweeds but often attached to surrounding willow branches or reeds. The female bird lays anywhere between five to seven eggs and covers them with weeds when the male or female bird is not incubating the eggs. Both sexes carry their young offspring on their backs.

The bird is known for carrying their young on its back. Photo / Getty Images

The bird is known for carrying their young on its back. Photo / Getty Images

Bird in trouble

They may be the most popular bird in the land, but Forest & Bird have revealed it’s not all good news for the pūteketeke.

In a release issued after the landslide win, the conservation organisation revealed the bird, has a classification of Nationally Vulnerable and the New Zealand-wide population is thought to be fewer than 1,000. In Australia, the bird is doing slightly better but between the two countries, the population is estimated to be less than 3,000.

Despite the low numbers, believe it or not, this isn’t the most dire situation the bird has been in. During the 1980s, the pūteketeke’s population dropped to a low of just 200. Thankfully, efforts by conservationists, including 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.

Petrina Duncan, the grebe co-ordinator for Forest & Bird’s Central Otago Lakes Branch, celebrated the win by speaking to Forest & Bird. “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,” Duncan said.

What happens now?

When it comes to the Bird of the Century competition, the winner doesn’t receive money, lush gifts or bottles of champagne; instead, the most important goal is the support and awareness behind the feathery contenders.

Following Oliver’s show segment, online searches for the pūteketeke spiked significantly. What’s more, Forest & Bird confirmed via X, formerly Twitter, that donations had seen a significant increase this year and that they were “blown away by people’s generosity”.

In a statement issued to the Herald, Forest & Bird revealed that while they are still counting the donations, they have seen a “great lift”.

“At the time of writing we are still counting the donations and more are continuing to come in, which is incredible. Needless to say we have seen a really great lift in donations - quite a few times higher than previous donation levels given around BOTY [Bird of the Year]. The support that we’ve seen from both overseas and here in New Zealand has been incredible.”

Meanwhile, Ellen Rykers from Forest & Bird told the Herald last week: “Behind all the silliness, memes and bird costumes, there’s a serious underlying message: more than 80 per cent of our native birds are threatened or at risk of extinction.”

“Given we love our birds so much, let’s make sure we protect them.”

Lillie Rohan is an Auckland-based reporter covering lifestyle and entertainment stories who joined the Herald in 2020. She specialises in all things relationships and dating, great Taylor Swift ticket wars and TV shows you simply cannot miss out on.

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