• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

How Bird of the Year became NZ's most hotly contested competition

Michelle Langstone reveals past campaigns’ scandals and skulduggery, taunts and tweets, shameless memes and schemes. As bird-nerd teams gear up to charm and disarm the voters, she says, it’s worth remembering all our native birds deserve top billing. 

About 10 days before the end of Forest & Bird’s 2018 Bird of the Year competition, Taylor Davies-Collie began to feel his optimism wane. The Dunedin botany student had thrown his support behind the takahē to win the top perch, but the tide was beginning to turn.

“It was a really hard thing, actually, Bird of the Year, because I love New Zealand wildlife, but I’d walk home from work and I’d see a kererū on the power line and I’d just be angry at it.”

Team Kererū were streaking ahead in the vote count. Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick brought her army of supporters with her when she joined the campaign team, and social-media memes featuring “round bois” (any animal of considerable girth) and “thicc birbs” (any bird species with a voluptuous physique) were dominating conversation.

The popularity of the salubrious wood pigeon was not all Davies-Collie had to contend with. Major shade was being thrown at him from Team Pukeko, whose fans became engaged in a slinging match with the takahē, each side taunting the other with memes including (but not limited to) which bird lives with its parents for too long, whose fecal matter is the most substantial, and whether or not one of the species was a “lowkey Australian”, a slight that could leave a stain on a bird’s good name forever.

To an outsider, this behaviour is dazzling in its oddity. To a native bird fan, however, it’s good-natured fun, and par for the course when you’re talking about the most hotly contested competition in New Zealand’s recent history.

Bird of the Year 2019.

 

Bird of the Year (BOTY) kicked off in 2000. Brainchild of the late Helen Bain, Forest & Bird’s then communications manager, it was initially meant to poke a bit of fun at New Zealand’s general elections. It was an immediate success for Forest & Bird, but it wasn’t until 2015 that competition data was recorded, allowing the growth to be measured.

In 2015, the total number of votes cast was 27,890; last year it was 48,111. That alone indicates a significant groundswell. Forest & Bird’s website engagements have increased by more than 60,000 since 2015, and when you look at social media, the scope of the competition really becomes apparent: in 2015, the reach on Facebook was 322,499. By the end of BOTY 2018, it was 1,209,632.

Fledge Media’s Kimberley Collins, passionate science communicator and outgoing BOTY co-ordinator, is thrilled with the growth. “It’s now become almost like a cultural phenomenon in New Zealand. It’s a total institution, and people get so fired up, and so passionate, and I just absolutely love seeing people care so much about our native birds.”

Collins also loves data, and her influence on the competition has meant votes and online interactions are now quantifiable. She’s been a steadfast advocate for birds, and largely responsible for the rise of hilarious memes that are now a prominent feature of each year’s campaigns. Her Gif of a kererū performing a mating dance to rapper Ginuwine’s ‘My Pony’ turned up again and again during the competition, reaching lunacy level in its hilarity.

Megan Hubscher, Forest & Bird’s senior communications and media adviser, says growing interest in the competition is partly the result of global awareness about climate change. “I think overall people are more aware of issues affecting the environment, the ways that humans are affecting the world around us and the very serious problems that it’s causing in New Zealand, our native species, and most visibly our birds. I don’t think these things are acting in isolation from each other.”

Read more: The shocking decline in birds worldwide is a disaster of humanity’s making | The battle to save our native birds | Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty

In May this year, the United Nations released a report detailing the biodiversity crisis the world faces – approximately a million species are sliding towards extinction, many of them within decades. Back home, the news is equally grim, says the Department of Conservation’s threatened species ambassador, Nicola Toki, who was a delegate at the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) plenary meeting that produced the report. “The stark reality of it is that we’ve lost 50 species of birds since people arrived here. It’s a real thing. Four out of five of our native bird species are considered to be ‘in trouble’ and one in three of them is at risk of becoming extinct.”

It’s surprising, then, that an ongoing local study reveals New Zealanders are largely unaware of how bad things are. Lincoln University’s biennial study Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment asks a series of questions about how well we consider the country is doing. The most recent report in 2016 found a total of 73.8% rated our environment as in an adequate, good or very good state, while 70% of people thought our native plants and animals were doing alright, too.

The 2018 findings are due out soon, and there is hope these attitudes may have shifted, but these results speak of a disconnection between people and the environment, and are a huge part of the challenge our conservationists face when they try to engage Kiwis in caring about the balance of life on our shores.

BOTY speaks directly into that disconnect, and every October the nation, and increasingly the world, is treated to an outpouring of affection for our many and varied bird species. It’s a no-holds-barred lovefest, an unashamed popularity contest, and one heck of a good time.

It may be something to do with our lack of native mammals – we have only two species of bat to gloat about, and they keep inhospitable hours – but New Zealanders love birds. In the eyes of the world, we are simply Kiwis, named for our beloved national symbol; Radio New Zealand’s hourly bird calls during Morning Report have been an institution since 1974; and our birds feature on every single one of our bank notes.

Our avifauna is unique, and some, like the mischievous kea, are extraordinarily charismatic. Our late, great conservationist Don Merton put it best: “They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kākāpō.”

Native birds are our taonga, so it stands to reason we should make a fuss about them. Bird lovers, notorious for being an eccentric lot, really come into their own when a competition is at stake. Electing a bird to office is something we take quite seriously, as Jacinda Ardern knows; the Prime Minister tweeted her best wishes for the start of the competition last year, and threw her support behind the black petrel, our “bogan of the sea”. Christchurch Police came out backing the pūkeko, on account of their colouration matching police uniforms. Treasury acknowledged a “major” election period, and encouraged public-sector neutrality.

In the interests of neutrality, this writer would like to declare her allegiance to the gannet (tākapu). The gannet campaign of 2018 was a triumph, and though many thousands of votes behind the eventual winner, the seabird gained 285 votes, and street credibility. The gannet, along with the kakī (black stilt) and the tomtit (miromiro), had the greatest increase in votes compared to the previous year. Supporters of the gannet believe its winning hashtags – #dammitgannet and #doadivebombbro – may have contributed to its meteoric [sic] rise.

Read more: NZ's black stilt, the kaki, is on the verge of extinction

Success ultimately comes down to campaign management, says Hubscher. Teams that come out strong and cover every area of engagement are the ones likely to do well. Inter-species rivalry, witty hashtags and humorous memes have become synonymous with BOTY. In a year full of #absoluteunits (comprehensively large birds) and #whooshwhoosh (birds you can hear coming), Team Kakī changed the game by signing up their mascot “Shelly” to the dating app Tinder. Reaching many single and up-for-it men and women across various cities in New Zealand, the approach proved wildly successful, with the kakī wading into a strong third place. Campaign managers Natalie Fordsick and Stephanie Galla felt the app was a useful educational tool: “We found Tinder was a really great way to have a conversation, where we could give some really brief facts to highlight the struggle kakī are facing, such as predation.”

When one of the team travelled to Hawaii, Shelly got around on Tinder there, too – possibly accounting for the large number of votes that came from the US in 2018.

It’s not the first time our birds have gone global. Sirocco the kākāpō led the way for international adoration when he charmed Stephen Fry and the world with his amorous mating display on the head of zoologist Mark Carwadine in the 2009 BBC documentary Last Chance to See. Nicola Toki happened to catch a lot of comments on Twitter the night the documentary was being aired in the UK, and seized the moment to capitalise on Sirocco’s unique charm.

“I phoned my boss and said, ‘I reckon you should start a Twitter account for Sirocco because I think it would go off.’”

As DoC had no social-media policies at the time, it was a maverick move. “The first thing I did was tweet Stephen Fry, and that’s all I needed to do because he replied.” Many of Fry’s millions of followers jumped over to the Twitter handle Toki had created for Sirocco, and the rest is history.

History repeated in 2018, when Fry threw his weight behind the kākāpō, and his influence undoubtedly contributed to the bird’s second placing. Celebrity endorsement also added momentum to the takahē campaign, when British comedian Bill Bailey, who was using takahē calls in his stand-up routine at the time, came out in support of the ancient bird on Twitter. Dogged campaign manager Taylor Davies-Collie says that was a highlight; running a campaign is a huge amount of work, and the demand for new content means any extra boost for a bird is celebrated. (The takahē stalked in at seventh place.)

Social media is a big part of the success of BOTY, and it’s also contributing to greater awareness in our global community of the threats to New Zealand’s endemic species. In the 2018/19 kākāpō breeding season, an increase in social-media use and a podcast have cemented the kākāpō’s place in hearts worldwide. Dr Andrew Digby, a scientist with DoC’s Kākāpō Recovery Programme, has been regularly updating the world on this landmark breeding season, and Alison Ballance’s National Radio podcast Kākāpō Files has gone deep into the breeding behaviours and risks for our nocturnal parrot. Enthusiasts have had daily updates on the season, including tweeted video clips and photos, soundbites and articles.

It has galvanised the bird nerds of the world, and at one vital point, it brought financial aid in an unprecedented amount. Digby tweeted that his team could use some financial support to further investigate the Aspergillus fungal infection that was threatening to knock down a significant number of mature and fledgling kākāpō.

He was retweeted more than 3000 times. Within 48 hours, public donations had reached $65,000. That money makes a significant difference to conservationists who have to jostle for funding every year, no matter how at risk the species they are trying to protect is. Every BOTY voter has an opportunity to donate to Forest & Bird, and that money is distributed across the organisation where needed.

Global news has also had fun with BOTY. Chlöe Swarbrick was interviewed for BBC television when the kererū won in 2018, and the Guardian had a comprehensive video guide to the “inebriated kererū pigeon” featuring embarrassing incidents of the cumbersome bird falling out of trees. Australians seemed perplexed but enthusiastic about our annual competition, with more than 5000 votes cast from their shores – a Herald Sun headline shouting TIPSY PIGEON LURCHES ACROSS FINISH LINE. In all, 135 countries contributed to the vote in 2018, from places as far flung as Namibia, the Faroe Islands and Afghanistan. In fact, international voting accounted for some 20% of all votes cast, a remarkable statistic when you consider the size and location of our little islands.

New Zealand loves a little Kiwi battler, and BOTY fits the duck-bill perfectly. There’s nowhere else in the world where a charming grassroots campaign like that for the royal spoonbill (kōtuku-ngutupapa) could riff on a theme of “utensil birds” and receive such adoration. Wellington illustrator Giselle Clarkson’s drawings of the “Crake Slice” and “Morespork” garnered more votes for the spoonbill than any other year, the delightful campaign charming the feathers off the public.

Kimberley Collins believes that while social media no doubt reaches a broad audience, there is still merit in simple campaigns. In 2017, kea supporters canvassed the Routeburn Track, handing out fliers to trampers. The alpine parrot went on to win, and ethical shoe brand Allbirds released a kea shoe to commemorate its achievement.

 

It wouldn’t be an election without a scandal, and BOTY is no exception. Since the competition data was first recorded, the event has been rocked by voting fraud on a number of occasions. It began in 2015 with teenage twins in Auckland, who hacked their father’s business URL and created 200 fraudulent email addresses to vote for the kōkako, briefly pushing the bird into first place before they were caught. Rather than telling them off, Forest & Bird invited the girls to west Auckland conservation project Ark in the Park to observe the kōkako population there. Says Collins: “The tack we took is, we think it’s amazing there are two 15-year-olds out there who are this passionate about birds, and they’d go to this effort to hack the system.”

There are whispers across the bird community that BOTY is biased. Observations stop short of accusations of bribery, but imply manipulation of voter interests: “Someone went to a National Wetland Symposium last year and the first presentation was on drumming up support for the spotless crake [pūweto] to be BOTY and encouraging everyone in the room to support it,” reports an anonymous source. An email exchange with a conservationist who will remain nameless yielded this supposition: “Presume you’ve heard the rumours that the competition is rigged?! So say those in the bird industry... so each bird gets their ‘turn’.”

Hubscher laughs when she hears this. “I can categorically confirm the voting is not rigged! Every candidate stands on its own merits.”

In the interests of fairness, Forest & Bird brought in a scrutineer to watch the voting for anomalies. Ecologist Yvan Richard of Dragonfly Data had been independently watching the votes for several years, and contacted Kimberley Collins in 2017 when he saw an unusual spike in the numbers. Someone from Christchurch had a burning love for the white-faced heron (matuku), and had illegally cast 112 votes in an attempt to push its pale face into the spotlight.

Richard came on board as official scrutineer in 2018, and caught someone in Australia committing voter fraud 300 times in the name of the shag (kawau). As well as providing delightful ammunition for transTasman sledging (“Desperate for a Shag” smirked the Guardian, over in the UK), a little scandal is good for the bird business. The more international attention, the better.

All these elaborate displays of courtship – but are they actually achieving anything for our birds? The tangible effect of BOTY is hard to quantify, but Forest & Bird and DoC are united in the view that the more people feel connected to our native species, the more they will feel a sense of responsibility. Nicola Toki cites Wellington’s Zealandia sanctuary as an example of the “click in” in consciousness.

“People thought [Zealandia] was going to devalue their properties, and it was going to be terrible. But within a few years, those people who were complaining… were holding kiwi-listening parties on back decks, because you can hear kiwi every night a stone’s throw from downtown Wellington.”

That closeness fosters guardianship, and for Kimberley Collins, that’s always been the goal. “BOTY could be a really nice way to get everyday people who might not otherwise relate to birds, or conservation, or the environment, to start thinking about what they can do themselves to contribute.”

As beloved nature documentarian and advocate David Attenborough once noted, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Fostering connections is what Bird of the Year does best, and if those connections can expand to physical support on the ground in Aotearoa, our feathery wonders might just stand a chance.

Voting for Bird of the Year will be open from 28 October to 10 November, but expect lobbying to start well in advance. Visit birdoftheyear.org.nz or mail your vote to Forest & Bird, PO Box 631, Wellington 6011. If you’d like to campaign for a native bird, register your interest at forestandbird.org.nz/bird-year-2019.            

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.