With a little help from comedian and late-night host John Oliver, the pūteketeke — a strange, puking bird — has soared to new heights and garnered international acclaim.
On Wednesday, the pūteketeke, a threatened species of Australasian crested grebe, was crowned New Zealand‘s “Bird of the Century.” The pūteketeke came out on top after a fierce effort from Oliver, who encouraged global citizens to use a loophole to vote for the colourful bird.
Though the “Bird of Century” competition is targeted toward New Zealand natives, Oliver and his crew realized the vote was not actually restricted to the country.
He launched his self-proclaimed “alarmingly aggressive” campaign two weeks ago on his satirical TV show Last Week Tonight. With his efforts, he even managed to knock New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi, humbly into second place. (Oliver snubbed the national bird and called it “a rat carrying a toothpick.”)
The pūteketeke is a vulnerable species with fewer than 3,000 birds left in the wild, according to Forest and Bird, the New Zealand-based environmental conservation organization that runs the competition.
The species is a diving bird that carries its young on its back and is rarely seen on land. The birds engage in bizarre mating rituals in which pūteketeke grunt and bark to showy mating dances, as well as gift one another waterweeds. Perhaps most notably, the pūteketeke will eat its own feathers to induce vomiting as a means to expel parasites.
The “Bird of the Century” contest is 2023’s variation of Forest and Bird’s yearly “Bird of the Year” competition, which began in 2005.
As part of his effort, Oliver crossed late-night TV borders and appeared on The Tonight Show to promote the pūteketeke. Last week, while sitting across from host Jimmy Fallon, Oliver — who was dressed as a pūteketeke — joked that the loophole allowing international votes seemed like a “vulnerability” that “somebody could exploit.”
“We were happy to be that somebody, and we are now the official campaign managers for the pūteketeke,” he said, punctuating the proclamation with a flap of his large feathers.
Oliver and his team also erected a series of billboards around the world in New Zealand, Japan, France, the U.K., India and Manitowoc, Wisc., encouraging folks to vote for the puking bird. The Last Week Tonight team even flew a plane with a banner advocating for the pūteketeke over the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
As a result of Oliver’s interference, online voting verification systems crashed, and the “Bird of the Century” results were delayed two days. Officials said the competition was overwhelmed with a record-breaking 350,000 votes from 195 countries.
The pūteketeke received a whopping 290,374 votes.
Forty-five valid votes were cast under the name “John Oliver.” All, save one, were cast for the pūteketeke. (The rogue vote was submitted for the New Zealand fairy tern.)
Thousands of fraudulent digital ballots reportedly had to be removed by vote counters. One such eager bird fan had their votes eliminated after they singlehandedly cast 40,000 votes for the piki toka eastern rockhopper penguin. (Oliver himself dismissed the competitor as a “hipster penguin.”)
Forest and Bird said another 3,403 fraudulent votes came from a single Pennsylvania native, who submitted their entries every three seconds.
Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki said she wasn’t surprised by the pūteketeke’s win but encouraged overexcited voters to channel their energy into more worthwhile projects.
“We know birds inspire incredible passion, but we encourage people to channel that passion into productive efforts rather than trying to rig an election,” Toki said in a press release. “We promised controversy but didn’t quite expect this!”
Some New Zealanders have accused Oliver of fowl play. Many national news outlets tried to drum up support for the country’s other native birds, but it was no match for the pūteketeke’s allure.
As is always the way with elections, not everyone was happy with the outcome.
The New Zealand tour company RealNZ even placed its own “Dear John” billboards around the country, encouraging the late-night host to keep his beak out of national elections.
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