New Zealand’s annual bird of the year competition could usher in another round of controversy, with perennial favourite the kākāpō struck from the ballot after twice winning the competition.
The fat, flightless and nocturnal parrot is the only species to reign twice as New Zealand’s favourite bird, in 2020 and 2008. This year, however, it will be conspicuously absent, amid concerns that its continued dominance could divert the spotlight from less charismatic candidates.
The kākāpō is the world’s heaviest parrot, and has been rescued from the brink of extinction by years of conservation efforts. Its population has risen from 50 during the 1990s to 252 today.
With voting due to open next week, some close followers of the competition were unconvinced by explanations for their candidate’s absence.
“The kākāpō has ‘decided’ not to be in Bird of the Year? More like rort of the year,” one social media commenter reacted to the news.
“He was pushed,” they continued.
“He was robbed,” responded another.
Others were supportive of the decision: “Very sporting,” said one. “The right decision.”
A spokesperson for Forest and Bird, the election’s organisers, rejected claims that the kākāpō had been banned for good.
“No, not banned from entry. It’s a hiatus. It’s definitely not a lifetime ban,” Forest & Bird spokesperson Ellen Rykers said. “You know, if the same bird keeps winning every year, that might make it not so interesting.”
Rykers said in an earlier statement that “Of course, the election remains fundamentally democratic”, adding that the competition was hoping “to channel … love to some of our feathered friends that may be overshadowed by their flashier, chonkier or louder cousins”.
The competition, which was started to raise awareness of New Zealand’s endangered or threatened native birds, has run for 17 years and become a sprawling undertaking.
Rykers said that this year, 40 people had taken up roles as “campaign managers” for individual birds. Organisers are attempting to boost the profile of less glamorous birds – dubbed “underbirds” – that usually get negligible votes. Candidates in this category, including the grey duck and shore plover will be highlighted on the online ballot, in an attempt to spark underdog sympathies among voters.
The competition has been an annual source of controversy and international media coverage. Last year, it made headlines after organisers allowed a native bat to enter. The bat won.
In 2019, the discovery of hundreds of votes being registered from Russia sparked claims of election meddling. The votes were ultimately judged legitimate; a spokesperson said interest from Russian ornithologists may be responsible. “New Zealand actually shares birds with Russia,” they said at the time. “We have the bar-tailed godwit that makes an annual round trip.”
In 2020, there was some consternation after the Adult Toy Megastore announced its sponsorship of the hihi, a “polyamorous, sexually fluid bird with big testicles”.
In 2018, Forest & Bird said 300 fraudulent votes were cast by Australians attempting to rig the contest in favour of the amusingly named shag.