The data team picked up on them first – 310 “dubious” votes from an IP address in Australia, sending one trend line suddenly, suspiciously skyward above the others. Something funny was going on with the shag.
Of course, by then – the 13th year of the competition – organisers knew to expect dodgy dealings in New Zealand’s bird of the year poll.
If a nationwide vote to name a favourite native bird sounds like innocuous good fun – a creative means of celebrating unique, threatened fauna – you may be underestimating bird of the year. Coordinated by the Royal Forest & Bird Society, an environmental nongovernmental organisation, it is often described as the country’s most important election – second only to, you know, the actual elections. Since 2017, too, it has had the same validation as two other Kiwi creations, pavlova and Russell Crowe: Australia has tried to pass it off as its own.
From a total of 900 votes received (some by post) in the first vote in 2005, bird of the year has grown to about 28,000 in 2015 and more than 48,000 in 2018 – nearly double the number that just elected the mayor of Wellington.
For this year’s competition, voting has been changed to proportional representation, allowing five choices, owing to persistent feedback that it was “too hard for people to choose just one bird”, according to a Forest & Bird spokeswoman, Megan Hubscher. “We’re seeing some interesting campaign strategies starting to take shape around that as well – for example, the penguin species are grouping together to campaign for ‘five ticks to penguins’.”
As in politics, electioneering has become more advanced. Each bird has a campaign manager or team, who stop at nothing to give their species the edge. In the past there have been Tinder profiles (for the black stilt), tattoos (of the saddleback) and celebrity endorsements (by Stephen Fry and Bill Bailey, for the kākāpō and the takahē).
It is a testament to the close competition that, in 14 years, no species has won twice. Last year’s victor, with 12% of the vote, the kererū – the native wood pigeon known for gorging itself on fermented fruits and making drunken crash landings into trees – took flight early on in the competition with memes celebrating the “magnificent thicc boi”.
Team Kereru promised to “govern for the many”, while Jacinda Ardern – who had backed the black petrel or tāiko, “the bogan of birds” – accepted the outcome of the democratic process with dignity. A seabird is yet to win bird of the year.
A vote for ‘the underbird’
Another underdog is the banded dotterel or pohowera, a skittish little plover, for which George Hobson of Wellington has served as campaign manager since 2015, when he was 11 years old. His campaign was “pretty average” back then, he admits, winning just under 150 votes; this year he has been directly contacting businesses, NGOs, “basically as many people as I can” to ask for their support. His highest profile supporter so far is the former PM and UN development programme head Helen Clark.
Hobson, now 16, says a vote for the nationally vulnerable “underbird” is a vote for diversity: “Out of the 14 bird of the year winners we’ve had, eight of them have had names beginning with the letter ‘k’ – so we really need to change it up a little bit. And we’re playing a reasonably fair and straightforward campaign – compared to some others.”
Not every bird plays by the rules – the black-billed gull ran a notoriously foul-mouthed campaign in 2017, calling the kiwi “a fat flightless fuck” – and the competition is reliably derailed by voter fraud. In 2018 the shag was among 16 species to be boosted by fraudulent votes. In 2017 someone in Christchurch used a random email address generator to lodge 112 votes for the white-faced heron. (The black-billed gull called it racist.)
And in 2015 hundreds of illegal votes for the North Island kokako sent it briefly to first place, before the bird’s campaign manager nobly reported foul play. The culprits, two sisters in Auckland, were later identified by their apologetic father.
“I actually think we were mostly impressed that two teenagers went to the effort of hacking the system for their favourite bird,” says Kimberley Collins, then competition coordinator. “We were like, ‘Hey, maybe don’t do it again – but good on you for caring so much.’”
Collins, a freelance science communicator, managed bird of the year for four years and remembers it fondly as a “stressful time”.
This is her first year not formally involved, though she is backing the hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin. “And one of our campaign values is we don’t heckle other birds, because we think other birds are awesome.”
The passion – and occasional skulduggery – is a testament to that personal connection that most New Zealanders feel to their native birds, Collins says: “There’s a bit of friendly heckling but also a lot of support, because we’re all people who care desperately about our native birds, and We don’t want to see any extinctions in our lifetimes.”
‘Catering for the bird nerds’
In the absence of any large native mammals – there are two species of bat that, by and large, fail to capture public imagination – New Zealand’s idiosyncratic birdlife serve as its best known and loved symbols of its unique biodiversity. Some New Zealanders would even have their namesake bird on the national flag, as was memorably established in the 2015 referendum.
The challenge for bird of the year, Collins says, has been striking the balance between keeping it fresh and fun for the public – “but also catering for the bird nerds who get, um, quite caught up in it”.
A teenager once sent her a spreadsheet of every bird species and subspecies from New Zealand, the Chatham Islands and the sub-Antarctic islands. There were more than 200 – not practicable for an online poll.
Another voter emailed Collins “multiple times, absolutely furious” at the inclusion of the pukeko because the swamphen species is also found in Australia.
The nation’s enthusiasm for its endemic wildlife is not always matched by efforts to understand or protect it. A 2016 Lincoln University study found that the perception of native species’ condition is largely adequate to good. Yet a report by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services this year found that more than 4,000 animals and birds were at risk of extinction.
The serious side to bird of the year is engaging the public in the breadth of New Zealand’s birdlife, beyond species that appear on the banknotes – as well as the challenges they face.
For Hobson, staring down his fifth campaign year, he admits: “I’d quite like to see a banded dotterel win” – and with the former PM’s backing, the chances of the “small little brown birds that run around our beaches” have never been better. “If we can connect people with our beautiful birds, then that’s almost a gateway for them to start caring more about conservation,” he says.
Collins agrees that a passion for birds can lead on to an interest in the rest of New Zealand’s flora and fauna. The New Zealand Plant Conservation Network already runs plant of the year, she notes.
“I’ve always personally been a big advocate for bat of the year, because it would be so easy to run,” she says. “Two bats. One tick.”
• Voting is at birdoftheyear.org.nz. The winning bird will be announced on Monday 11 November