John Oliver’s campaign pays off in New Zealand’s Bird of the Century contest

14 November 2023, 21:44

John Oliver
New Zealand Bird Vote. Picture: PA

Vote checkers in New Zealand were so overwhelmed by the comedian’s foreign interference they had to postpone naming the winning bird for two days.

Comedian John Oliver has succeeded in his campaign to have what he describes as a weird, puking bird with a colourful mullet win New Zealand’s Bird of the Century contest.

Conservation group Forest And Bird on Wednesday announced that Oliver’s favoured water bird, the puteketeke, had won after the comedian went all-out in a humorous campaign for the bird on his HBO show Last Week Tonight.

Vote checkers in New Zealand were so overwhelmed by Oliver’s foreign interference they had to postpone naming the winning bird for two days.

Usually billed Bird of the Year, the annual event by conservation group Forest And Bird is held to raise awareness about the plight of the nation’s native birds, some of which have been driven to extinction.

A billboard at a bus stop promotes comedian John Oliver’s campaign for the puteketeke to be named New Zealand’s Bird of the Century in Wellington, New Zealand
An advert at a bus stop in Wellington promotes comedian John Oliver’s campaign for the puteketeke to be named New Zealand’s Bird of the Century (Lillie Beliveau/AP)

This year, the contest was named Bird of the Century to mark the group’s centennial.

Oliver discovered a loophole in the rules, which allowed anybody with a valid email address to cast a vote.

He had an advert erected for The Lord Of The Wings in New Zealand’s capital Wellington.

Oliver also put up adverts in Paris, Tokyo, London, and Mumbai, India, and had a plane with a banner fly over Ipanema Beach in Brazil.

And he wore an oversized bird costume on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show.

“After all, this is what democracy is all about,” Oliver said on his show.

“America interfering in foreign elections.”

Forest And Bird did not immediately release the final vote tally on Wednesday but said the group received more than 350,000 verified votes, more than six times the previous record of 56,700 votes in 2021.

It said Oliver’s “high-powered” campaign temporarily crashed its voting verification system.

“It’s been pretty crazy, in the best possible way,” chief executive Nicola Toki told The Associated Press before the winner was announced.

New Zealand is unusual in that birds developed as the dominant animals before humans arrived.

“If you think about the wildlife in New Zealand, we don’t have lions and tigers and bears,” Ms Toki said.

Despite nearly nine of every 10 New Zealanders now living in towns or cities, she added, many retain a deep love of nature.

“We have this intangible and extraordinarily powerful connection to our wildlife and our birds,” Ms Toki said.

The contest has survived previous controversies.

A billboard at a bus stop promotes comedian John Oliver’s campaign for the pūteketeke to be named New Zealand’s Bird of the Century in Wellington, New Zealand
John Oliver put up adverts in several cities across the world (Nick Perry/AP)

Election scrutineers in 2020 discovered about 1,500 fraudulent votes for the little spotted kiwi.

And two years ago, the contest was won by a bat, which was allowed because it was considered part of the bird family by indigenous Maori.

This year, the organisers said they eliminated more fraudulent votes, including 40,000 cast by a single person for the eastern rockhopper penguin.

Ms Toki said that when the contest began in 2005, they had a total of 865 votes, which they considered a great success.

She said the previous record vote count was broken within a couple of hours of Oliver launching his campaign.

Ms Toki said Oliver contacted the group earlier this year asking if he could champion a bird.

They had told him to go for it, not realising what was to come.

“I was cry laughing,” Ms Toki said when she watched Oliver’s segment.

Oliver described how the puteketeke, which number less than 1,000 in New Zealand and are also known as the Australasian crested grebe, eat their own feathers before vomiting them back up.

“They have a mating dance where they both grab a clump of wet grass and chest bump each other before standing around unsure of what to do next,” Oliver said on his show, adding that he had never identified more with anything in his life.

Some in New Zealand pushed back against Oliver’s campaign.

One group put up adverts reading: “Dear John, don’t disrupt the pecking order,” while others urged people to vote for the national bird, the kiwi.

Oliver responded by saying the kiwi looked like “a rat carrying a toothpick”.

“For the record, all of your birds are great, and it would be an honour to lose to any of them when the results are announced on Wednesday,” Oliver said on his show.

“The reason it is so easy for me to say that is that we aren’t going to lose, are we? We are going to win, and we are going to win by a lot.”

By Press Association

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