The ‘Puking’ pūtekete has been crowned New Zealand’s bird of the century following a campaign by John Oliver

  • November 15, 2023

New Zealand has crowned a bird that clucks, pukes and has a very unusual set of mating habits as its bird of the century.

The threatened Australasian crested grebe, or pūteketeke, was thrust into the world by powerful advocate, British-American comedian and talk show host John Oliver.

The announcement of the winner of the annual fortnight was delayed by two days after the contest was closed, following Oliver’s announcement on an episode of Last Week Tonight in the US, that he was setting himself up as the pūteketeke’s official campaign manager.

His campaign included buying billboards in New Zealand, Japan, France, the UK, India and the US state of Wisconsin. A plane with a pūteketeke campaign banner also flew over the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Oliver then appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon wearing a pūteketeke costume to promote the bird.

The pūteketeke is known to carry its young on its back, share the responsibilities of raising the chicks, and eat its feathers to induce vomiting as a way to expel parasites. It has hums, growls and barks and engages in an elaborate mating dance, including the “weed dance” where the birds give each other water weed and the “ghostly penguin” when they rise chest to chest.

The competition, run by environmental organization Forest & Bird, usually attracts fewer than 60,000 votes but this year that number rose to 350,000 from 195 countries, with 290,374 of those going to pūteketeke. Thousands of fraudulent votes had to be removed, including 40,000 votes cast by a single tawaki piki toka eastern rockhopper penguin.

New Zealand’s national bird, the North Island brown kiwi, came second with 12,904 votes, while the world’s only parrot, the clever kea, came third with 12,060 votes.

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“Pūtekete started out as an outside contender for Bird of the Century but rose to the top thanks to his unique appearance, great parenting style and plucking propensity,” said Forest & Bird CEO Nicola Toki.

“We are not surprised these beautiful features have caught the eye of an influential bird enthusiast with a large following.”

The pūteketeke nests in lakes in the southern part of the South Island and is considered nationally endangered. A conservation project started in 2013 has helped increase the population from less than 200 in the 1980s to less than 1,000 today.

Oliver’s campaign for what he describes as the bird’s “frightening ferocity” has thwarted efforts by local groups, including primary schools and universities, to push their beloved feathered friends up the leaderboards.

“They are strange winged birds with colorful beaks. What’s not to like here?” said Oliver the bird.

A billboard at a bus stop promotes comedian John Oliver's campaign to have the sparrowhawk named New Zealand's bird of the century.

The competition was established in 2005 to raise awareness of the plight of New Zealand’s native birds, many of which are threatened, endangered or already extinct due to the introduction of insects, human activities and habitat loss.

This year, the organizers included five extinct species on the list and temporarily changed the competition to centenary birds, to celebrate the organization’s centenary.

“More than 80% of our native birds are on the endangered species list,” said Toki.

“Since the reduction of the Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency tasked with protecting this endangered treasure (treasure), is pending, it is very worrying,” he said. “The world is watching us and how we take care of our birds.”

Over the years, the tournament has become a hotbed of controversy, from the crowning of a winner in 2021, to allegations of Russian interference in 2019, and claims that Australians tried to shag the tournament in 2018.