BOTY: The Bird of the Year Competition is back to ruffle some feathers

BOTY: The Bird of the Year Competition is back to ruffle some feathers

As Kiwis, we’ll vote in many elections over our lifetimes. Local, general, special, OUSA – the list goes on. But there is no democratic decision more important in Aotearoa than Te Manu Rongonui o Te Tau - The Bird of The Year. Voting for the 2022 election starts soon, so let’s have a look at the competition, the controversy, and the eligible bird-chelors in the running.
Bird of the Year pecked its way out of the egg in 2005 as part of Forest and Bird’s first digital newsletter. Absolutely anybirdy could get involved in the competition; the only requirements to becoming a campaign manager are frothing and foaming at the mouth for one of our native birds, and being able to fill out the application form (easily available on the Forest and Bird website). The 2005 election saw the tūi swoop in to clinch the title of the first ever Bird of the Year, presumably due to the campaign promises of not waking everyone up at the asscrack of dawn with their song. 
Bird of the Year is a competition with enough passion and drama to rival a Game of Thrones house, so in addition to a long history of conservation promotion, there’s a parallel history of hilarious scandal. In 2015, the kōkako campaign would see 200 votes cast overnight, soaring to first place. Two young Auckland students had created multiple fake email addresses to vote for kōkako. Given the votes all came from the same IP address, it was obvious the trickery was amateur hour. “Forest and Bird try to up their cyber security every year, but it never seems to be enough. Almost feels like a challenge!” said Oscar, the campaign manager at the time and now a student at Otago. Kōkako would end up winning the 2015 year anyway, so maybe there’s something to be said about “any kind of publicity”. 
Given the devotion some birds inspire in their fans, 2015 would not be the only year with counterfeit votes. Somebirdy in Christchurch cast 112 votes for the white-faced heron in 2017, and the black shag had 310 phoney votes cast from Australia in 2018. 2020 saw the iconic little-spotted kiwi receive 1,500 votes between 1am and 3am – particularly suspicious because (despite being the flightless figurehead of Aotearoa) the kiwi historically hasn’t done well in Bird of the Year campaigns. Three shrikes and you’re out; none of these birds would replicate the kōkako’s success and win, despite passionate fans willing to undermine birdocracy for a cause. Better luck nest time! Forest and Bird’s response to the fowl play over the years has been typically kiwi, with the 2017 Bird of the Year coordinator eggs-plaining: “We’re not mad, just impressed that someone cares enough about New Zealand’s native birds to rig the competition.” 
That’s not to say the Bird of the Year contestants themselves haven’t had their fair share of controversy. Some of the controversial candidates from last year have even announced their step back from the 2022 competition. The long-tailed bat, pekapeka-tou-roa, flew away on leathery wings with the crown last year after receiving 7,031 votes. Has the world gone batty, have we lost our quacking minds? The bat was a special entry allowed due to its critically endangered status and lack of public awareness, but it’s better to be hated and remembered than loved and forgotten. The pekapeka won by a considerable margin, and no one will be forgetting the name soon. Throughout the campaign, other commentators pointed out that the word ‘manu’ in te reo Māori just means a winged, flying creature – so the bat’s inclusion in the competition flies. Forest and Bird’s guilt-tripping statement on the bat’s win also helped smooth over some ruffled feathers. “A vote for bats is also a vote for predator control, habitat restoration, and climate action to protect our bats and their feathered neighbours!” 
However, the bat might have done us a solid, because without the mammal’s entry you unoriginal sheeple would have voted kākāpō for Bird of the Year for the THIRD TIME! Currently, kākāpō is the only bird to have won the competition twice (once in 2008 and again in 2020), and although we can’t deny the loveable nature of these mossy mountain parrots – it’s time to branch out. Expand your horizons, order something other than butter chicken from Maharaja’s, vote for a different bird. Thankfully, since y’all can’t be trusted, kākāpō have also stepped back from the competition this year. Spokesbird Sirocco cited family reasons in Forest and Bird’s press release. “Skraark! After two successful terms as your bird of the year, we are taking a step back from politics to focus on family...We urgently need to focus on making more adorable kākāpō chicks, so we can grow our army of moss chickens and take over Aotearoa. Boom!” This will be every young kākāpō’s hot beak summer – may the greenest bird smash.
So with the kākāpō and pekapeka safely out of the way this year, where should your votes fly? The theme for 2022 is ‘underbirds,’ with Forest and Bird intending on highlighting the unappreciated and overlooked birds of Aotearoa. The lovable loser birds, if you will. The teenage birdbags.
Daniel, an Otago zoology student, is championing the southern dotterel, tūturiwhatu, during his final year at university. Possibly the southern dotterel’s biggest fan, Daniel has volunteered with Southern NZ Dotterels and other DOC programs since he was 15. Sadly, in the past three or four years, dotterel numbers have been in severe decline, and according to Daniel not much has changed in terms of management. “There’s just not enough funding or awareness around the southern dotterel. Plenty of people don’t even know there is a southern dotterel – everyone just thinks of the northern one.” 
Typical for the North Island, the northern dotterel receives far more media attention and management, meaning there’s a good few thousand northern dotterel compared to the quickly dwindling southern population. “It’s my last year at university, and numbers really are getting desperate for the dotterel. The southern dotterel could be functionally extinct within the next five years – this year’s breeding season is going to be very important, because last season wasn’t ideal.” Currently, the dotterel population sits at 144. Yikes. Unlike that breatha trying to convince you to let him into your pants, getting to hit it really is a life or death matter for the southern dotterel. “The increased visibility and support winning the Bird of the Year, or even just doing reasonably well, would make a real difference and potentially lead to even more sponsorships.” Although no sponsorship will be as legendary as Adult Mega Superstore sponsoring the hihi due to their unique face to face mating and status as the biggest-balled bird, almost-extinct-nationally-critical birds can’t be choosy!
There’s going to be stiff competition for the title, though. Christian is campaigning for the paradise shelduck for the second time. “In 2021, after a lot (and I mean a lot) of effort, the paradise shelduck managed to get…43rd. Which was actually one of the biggest improvements, and I’ll hopefully get it in the top half this year.”  Paradise shelduck are found all over Aotearoa, including campus celebrities Bill and Bill, and are rather easy to identify. “They have their own body language to indicate threats, which one-ups the kea.” Along with being a prolific species, the paradise shelduck is at the head of the Duck Coalition. Formed during last year’s campaign by Christian, who cites its success, “grey duck promoted it and we got the whio, AKA blue duck, over 50 extra votes.” The Coalition is formed by active members paradise shelduck, the scaup/pāpango, and whio, with inactive seats held by the grey duck and Australiasian shoveler. 

According to Christian, the biggest problem for the duck is hunting. “Even though they’re endemic to Aotearoa, over 30% of the population is killed by duck hunters each year, which there’s no good excuse for. The only reason they’re not extinct is because they’re amazing parents which is part of why they’re kind of aggressive and also hate humans.” If only the Dunedin duck population was aggressive and avoidant, rather than aggressive and demanding outside your door. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for the paradise shelduck, as big things are coming, Christian says. “This campaign will be even crazier [than last year], I literally asked 59 foreign representatives and more for endorsements. Birds like kākāpō and kiwi haven’t even been trying, both in terms of survival and campaigning, so if you want a true underbird to win, vote for the paradise shelduck.”  
Melissa has been volunteering at Zealandia in Wellington where she fell in love with the tiny, determined, and aggressively cute titipounamu (rifleman). “I spent a lot of time getting to know each bird individually, so I know how incredible they are. They’re so intelligent and resilient, oh and did I mention they’re tiny? They’re absolutely tiny! They’re only around eight centimetres long and weigh just six grams!” The titipounamu is an ancient species, and are clinging to survival in remaining patches of forest hiding from their biggest nemesis: the stoat.

”These birds never stop moving, and they’re a joy to spend time with. They enchant everyone that meets them. They love to snack and they form life-long bonds with their mate, they’re just the most wholesome bird ever.” Melissa’s campaign for the titipounamu has been focusing on memes and videos, as she’s hoping the cute content will translate into votes. “Campaigning takes a lot of time and effort so it’s lucky that I am so passionate about sharing my love for titipounamu.” 

Although Melissa is ride or die for the titipounamu, she’s also hoping for some unexpected surprises. “There are already some great campaigns popping up! I’d love to see more seabirds in the top ten, I love our forest birds but seabirds don’t get anywhere near as much attention and they’re just as special.” 
At the end of the day, though, Bird of the Year is about increasing visibility and getting kiwis involved in conservation around our birds (and bats), and most of our birds are citizens of struggle central when it comes to their survival. So, if you’re passionate about a different bird and are pecking up the walls to run your own campaign, go for it! “The competition used to be a lot more celebrity-endorsed, at the start, but now it’s just about putting the effort in,” Oscar commented. But most importantly, get out and vote this year, as it’s looking like an egg-citing campaign season. Voting opens on the 17th of October and closes on the 30th - and if you’re gonna try hacking, just don’t get caught for flock’s sake!

This article first appeared in Issue 25, 2022.
Posted 2:44pm Sunday 2nd October 2022 by Ruby Werry.