US comedian John Oliver ruffles feathers with call to stack the Bird of the Century ballots

9:21 am on 7 November 2023
A shot from US comedian John Oliver's segment on New Zealand's Bird of the Year.

A giant mechanised grebe is part of comedian John Oliver's campaign to stack New Zealand's Bird of the Century competition. Photo: Screengrab

US talk show host John Oliver has waded into New Zealand's Bird of the Century competition, egging on viewers to flood the Forest & Bird-hosted ballot.

In this week's episode of his show Last Week Tonight, the comedian explained he was so passionate about the result of the "intense" competition, he has launched an "alarmingly aggressive" global campaign.

This included billboards next to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a bright neon cartoon advert on one of Tokyo's busiest intersections, billboards on a store in Mumbai and on the side of a roving truck in London, as well as a 'Lord of the Wings' poster on a bus shelter in Wellington and an airborne banner flown above Ipanema Beach in Brazil.

A shot from US comedian John Oliver's segment on New Zealand's Bird of the Year.

Pedestrians on the Champs Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe, walk past one of Oliver's Bird of the Century billboards. Photo: Screengrab

His candidate? The pūteketeke, or Australasian crested grebe - which Oliver declaring himself its "official campaign manager".

The bird was deserving of recognition, he explained, with its existence under threat, and estimates of fewer than 1000 of them left in New Zealand.

"Look at this beauty... even its name is fun to say, it feels like your tongue is tap-dancing," he said.

Oliver pointed out voting required only a valid email address, which he said meant overseas voters had a shot at stacking the competition:

"Last year's rock wren won with 2894 votes - I'm pretty sure we can beat that.

"We are going all out for this bird. I don't just want the pūteketeke to win, I want it to win in the biggest landslide in the history of this magnificent competition. After all, this is what democracy is all about - America interfering in foreign elections."

Australasian crested grebe

A US-funded campaign is behind efforts to tern the tide in favour of the Australasian crested grebe. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

A shot from US comedian John Oliver's segment on New Zealand's Bird of the Year.

Photo: Screengrab

This year the competition was changed from 'Bird of the Year' to 'Bird of the Century' to mark Forest & Bird's centennial.

Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki told Morning Report she was unperturbed by Oliver's attempt at fixing the vote, and their website had held up.

"It's fair to say that a fair amount of weight was applied to work on it. My team working on it has had very little sleep. We're pretty impressed that the website held up, given the thousands and thousands of votes that came in."

The vote-rigging was not unexpected, as the team behind Oliver's show had been in touch earlier this year.

"They were keen to be involved and we said, 'Go for it!'"

A shot from US comedian John Oliver's segment on New Zealand's Bird of the Year.

Photo: Screengrab

A shot from US comedian John Oliver's segment on New Zealand's Bird of the Year.

Photo: Screengrab

All votes would need to be verified, but the bar to entry was low, she added.

"You need to be a bird lover and someone with a valid email address. As John Oliver figured out, it doesn't matter where in the world you are."

The controversy around this latest flurry of votes did not bother Toki.

"We rise to a challenge here in New Zealand - let's treat this as our new Everest, to show we can punch above our weight."

It was not the first time foreign influence had poked its beak into the competition - Australian interference was detected during the 2018 campaign, with a person in Perth voting more than 300 times in one night for the shag (kawau) to win.

And it seemed Oliver was no spring chicken when it came to the mottled history of the Bird of the Year, the presenter unfolding a brief history of how the competition had ruffled feathers in previous years, detailing "injustices" and scandals.

Among the previous candidates lambasted by Oliver was the white-faced heron - "it looks like a pigeon took anabolic steroids - I hate this bird" - and the long-tailed bat, which flew through to a win in 2021 on a technicality, despite not being a bird.

RNZ's Katie Fitzgerald talks about Bird of the Year in 2022.

Oliver described the bird calls heard on a past RNZ-hosted debate for Bird of the Year as "like listening to an orgy of haunted dolls". Photo: RNZ / HBO

Instead, Oliver sided with the kākāpō, railing against its past disqualification.

"This bird, the kākāpō, was disqualified because it had already won twice - which is bullshit, we don't do that for other awards - oh, sorry Beyoncé, but since you've already won 32 Grammys - you are disqualified from now on so that someone worse than you can win... The kākāpō earned those wings, it's the world's fattest parrot, and... they're also friendly and they smell nice."

However, Oliver's love for the kākāpō was not strong enough to sway him to champion the giant parrot, back on the ballot for 2023. Instead, he was drawn by the grebe's "great hair" and slick family-friendly appeal.

"There are so many fun facts about it, like the fact that they are known for carrying their babies on their backs, which is adorable, and both parents will incubate their eggs and tend to the chicks - they give each other space to co-parent.

"And you want elegance? They have a mating dance where they both grab a clump of wet grass and chest bump each other before standing around unsure about what to do next - I have never identified with anything more in my... life.

"They are weird puking birds with colourful mullets, what's not to love here?"

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