11 Nov 2019

Bird of the Year competition: Keeping the good vibe flying high

8:31 pm on 11 November 2019

By Nik Dirga*

Opinion - The Bird of the Year competition has flown the coop for another year, but the country's birds require attention all year round.

Hoiho / yellow-eyed penguins on Enderby Island, in the subantarctic Auckland islands.

The hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, has been proclaimed the victor with more than 12,000 votes - marking the competition's first seabird winner in its 14-year history. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The tweeting is over, the hashtags are going back to their nest, and New Zealand's wonderfully eccentric frenzy over the Bird of the Year vote is done for another year.

But while the online survey by Forest & Bird fires up thousands of avian aficionados for a few weeks, there's no reason bird lovers can't spread their wings all year long.

Bird of the Year is one of those charming things Aotearoa gets all worked up about that may seem a bit quaint to the rest of the world.

Since it started in 2005, it's been growing in popularity every year.

Last year's vote, with the charmingly awkward kererū the victor, took in more than 48,000 entries.

This year, with the plucky penguin hoiho victorious, is probably even higher.

There's usually a handful of mildly bemused headlines every year about how the feathers fly, allegations of vote tampering and increasingly elaborate online campaigns. It's such a great idea that Australia copied it to kick off their own contest in 2017.

(This year I must admit in the interest of full transparency my top vote went to #teamruru, because the plucky little native owl or morepork deserves its chance in the spotlight. It's the Batman of birds. Next year, ruru fans.)

New Zealand morepork, or ruru, Ninox novaeseelandiae, on the West Coast of the South Island.

New Zealand morepork, or ruru. Photo: 123RF

Forest & Bird are well worth supporting with your donations and deserve applause for the attention the contest brings. Many other groups also work hard to protect our wildlife.

Bird rescue centres are a year-round job for workers and volunteers nationwide, and if the spirit of celebrating the nation's precious feathered taonga moves you, now is a perfect time to get involved.

I began volunteering recently at the NZ Bird Rescue Charitable Trust centre in Green Bay in Auckland.

Each day at the centre, people show up with wounded or lost birds they've found, and the centre does what it can to rehabilitate them.

Forty-seven birds were dropped off at the centre this past Saturday alone.

Volunteers help clean and feed the birds and assist centre staff.

Often people dream of being vets or animal workers and imagine that it's like cuddling puppies all day. The reality is different.

While there's a lot to love about animal work, it's often smelly, sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally painful (you won't believe how hard a pukeko can peck). Ducks are surprisingly strong, I discovered, and picking up a full-grown fluttering kererū and trying to weigh it is not an easy task.

But it's hugely rewarding in a way that just clicking on a button online alone can't be.

Holding a bird is an art form in and of itself.

Too tight, you have a dead bird, too soft, and you've got an escaped bird.

Holding a baby duckling - all fluff and undulating neck, pubescent winglets fidgeting and flippers gyrating - will teach you the art of gentle firm care. Feel the fluttering feathers, the gentle tremors of something that can fly up into the treetops, in your hands.

It's zen and the art of avian maintenance.

Young blackbirds are hand-fed. A heron missing a toe finds a new home. Ducklings orphaned are warmed under lamps and given a second chance. Sometimes they don't make it. But at least we tried.

Kākāpō, hoiho, piwakawaka, banded dotterel.

Kākāpō, hoiho, piwakawaka and banded dotterel. Photo: 123RF / RNZ

There are bird rescue centres scattered all over the country, with hard-working people helping our feathered friends, who are constantly under stress thanks to humans, other animals and climate change.

It doesn't have to be hands-on work, which does require a firm time commitment. The Green Bay centre is always looking for donations either of money or supplies - you won't believe how much seed, newspapers, kitten food, paper towels and other supplies these birds can get through in a few days.

Bird of The Year is a great way to raise awareness of the precious and precarious state of our country's avians. Vote for your favourite, by all means. Argue about the relative merits of the whio versus the hoiho. But also, keep going.

The birds are there every day.

The very fact that people are taking the time out to debate our birds, and celebrate them in all their colourful, eccentric forms, is amazing.

Let's keep that good vibe flying high.

*Nik Dirga is an American journalist who moved to New Zealand in 2006.

NZ Bird Rescue: https://birdrescue.org.nz

Wild Bird Care: https://www.birdcare.org.nz

Guide to NZ centres: https://birdrescue.org.nz/rescuing-a-bird/

DOC's advice on how to help native birds: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/you-can-help-birds/

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