Is a bird in the hand really worth two on a billboard? John Oliver doesn’t care, because he’s got more money than you.
John Oliver joked on his show that there’s nothing more American than influencing elections, and that may well be true (I, myself, have indulged). His sudden zeal for the Pūteketeke was borne out of this time-honoured tradition, and was backed by the bankroll of American media.
It was a hilarious bit, and the bird itself is objectively pretty sick, but once Oliver's had his fun, what happens to the Pūteketeke? Will OIiver perform a Toy Story-esque drop and move on to the next bit on the lineup? He talked a big game and dropped some major cash, but surely if he really cared about the Pūteketeke, he would’ve just… donated that money.
Oliver put all his eggs in one basket with his champion fowl, the Pūteketeke. His “alarmingly aggressive” campaign paid off, with the Australasian Crested Grebe taking home 290,374 votes in this year’s centennial competition: a far cry from the second-place North Island brown kiwi’s 12,904 votes. It was much closer towards the end of the ballot, with only 306 votes separating 6th and 9th place.
It wasn’t hard to swing the vote. Last year’s winner, the Pīwauwau / rock wren, won with only 2,894 of the 52,000 total votes. This year, the Pūteketeke claimed over 80% of the 350,000 lodged. No matter the winner, that represents a massive increase in visibility for Forest and Bird, which is certainly something to squawk about.
One thing’s clear: as Ellen Rykers from Forest and Bird has agreed, “It could only be a good thing” that Oliver has sparked global interest in Aotearoa’s endangered taonga, mullet-sporting or no. Aotearoa cares about its native birds wholeheartedly, and our good example is now on the world stage. Maybe it’ll inspire similar efforts elsewhere. Maybe that interest will be matched with donations to Forest and Bird. Who knows.
While some of Oliver's comments about kererū being little more than “a pigeon in a tank top” and kiwi being “rats with toothpicks” suggest that he has never heard the gloriously desperate flutter of wood pigeon wings, he clearly does have an interest in what’s going on here. It just doesn’t seem like that interest has translated to investment - yet.
Oliver purchased advertisement space encouraging voters to flock to the Pūteketeke campaign from all over the world: in London, Times Square, Ipanema Beach, even the heart of Wellington. And that can’t be cheap. While there is a genuine conservation incentive to the contest, whatever prize is given to a winning bird surely doesn’t hold a candle to whatever Oliver’s team paid for this stunt.
It’s all fun and games to pull off a massive publicity stunt and influence a silly election in a silly country at the bottom of the world. After all, meddling is certainly not unusual in the contest’s history; that’s part of the charm. Just this year, someone tried to vote 40,000 times for the tawaki piki toka (eastern rockhopper penguin) according to RNZ, and it’s not like Forest and Bird were caught off guard: Oliver’s team was reportedly in touch ahead of time, asked for permission to pull off their stunt, and were told to “go for it”. And it was a genuinely hilarious campaign that Forest and Bird was "stoked to see". Me too!
Oliver’s money has been spent on all sorts of crazy projects over the years (and surely quite a bit on lawyers). Often it goes to excellent, tangible causes; in his third season of Last Week Tonight, the show bought $15 million worth of medical debt for just under $60,000 and proceeded to forgive the debtors. He claimed it was the “largest one-time giveaway in television history”. He’s also purchased Russel Crowe’s jockstrap ($7,000), but that’s another story.
Point being: John Oliver has a lot of money to throw around. This year, it’s been used to elevate Aotearoa’s feathered friends, which can only be respected. But the question remains: will Oliver put (more of) his money where his mouth is? Can the oh-so-relatable puking Pūteketeke expect a regurgitation of funds from overseas, or will Oliver only foot the bill while it's fun?
Forest and Bird's Final top ten:
1. Australasian crested grebe / pūteketeke: 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. Eastern rockhopper penguin: 6,763 votes
7. Black robin: 6,753 votes
8. Huia: 6,467 votes
9. Tūī: 6,457 votes
10. Takahē: 6,292 votes