Wānaka local crowned Bird of the Century

by Kim Bowden - Nov 15, 2023

After a two-week battle of the birds that will go down in history, the pūteketeke - or Australiasian crested grebe - now wears the coveted Bird of the Century crown atop its burnt-orange mullet. 

There are thought to be fewer than 1000 of them in Aotearoa, up from just 200 in the 1980s, and their recovery is in part thanks to a homegrown rescue mission.

Retired zoologist John Darby kickstarted the Lake Wānaka Grebe Project ten years ago, in a bid to bolster numbers of the 'Nationally Vulnerable' bird.

The project sees floating nest platforms for the birds launched on the southern lake, to give them a fighting chance against fluctuating lake levels. It has resulted in bird numbers coming back from the brink.

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. 

Petrina Duncan, the grebe coordinator for Forest and Bird’s Central Otago Lakes branch says the pūteketeke is a deserving winner considering its survival story.

“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.” 

While the pūteketeke began as an outsider for the top spot, it caused a right flap after catching the attention of a very influential international voter.

The native lake bird awkwardly danced its way to snag the title with the backing of US talkshow host John Oliver.

In addition to showcasing a giant pūteketeke puppet on his own show to encourage his audience to vote, Mr Oliver appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon dressed in grebe garb and organised ads in Paris, Tokyo, London, Mumbai and Brazil.

Forest and Bird has confirmed a perceived "American interference" in the bird election promoted Kiwis (the people) to turn out at the polls in force, with local media and businesses pulling out all the stops to drum up support for other species.

Marketing gold for an independent conservation organisation.

A record 350,000-plus 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. 

US talkshow host John Oliver stacked the New Zealand Bird of the Century competition with his backing of the quirky pūteketeke - or Australiasian crested grebe (Photo: Screengrab from 'Last Week Tonight', November 5, 2023). 

After Mr Oliver launched this high-powered campaign, the voting verification system temporarily crashed, leading to a two-day delay to the winner announcement.  

Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki says the team is "stoked to see the outpouring of passion, creativity and debate that this campaign has ignited".

“More than 80 percent 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.” 

She says she's not surprised the pūteketeke "caught the eye of an influential bird enthusiast with a massive following".

“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."

Main image (Facebook/The Lake Wānaka Grebes): Bird numbers are up thanks to the Lake Wānaka Grebe Project, started by Forest and Bird member John Darby, who first built a floating nesting platform ten years ago.

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