Two weeks ago New Zealand’s Bird of the Year 2013 was announced – this year’s triumphant winner was the mōhua (or yellowhead). Run by Forest & Bird, the annual Bird of the Year contest is a uniquely New Zealand initiative. As far as we know there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
It was begun in 2005 to celebrate New Zealand’s native birds and highlight the threats they face. Around 1,000 people voted in the first poll, and since then the event’s popularity has grown.
In 2010 Forest & Bird communications officer Mandy Herrick introduced the idea of having campaign managers – often celebrities – for each bird. Mandy says, ‘I think the campaigners that come on board all have their different strengths – some are powerful orators and choose to do a video address. Others have graphic design skills, or friends in the right areas.’ In 2012 one campaign manager had his bird tattooed on his bicep.
Bird of the Year is not without its dramas: ‘One of the strangest competitions was when kākāriki won in 2010. That year our voting topped 15,000 votes, and we were delighted that people were flocking to the polls, until we learnt that some mad-keen kākāriki enthusiast had hacked our system and was ‘topping up’ the kākāriki vote count by about 500 votes a day. After that we put in new security measures.’
The 2013 competition – in which nearly 13,000 people voted – had a community feel. Tainui School in Dunedin campaigned vigorously for ruru (moreporks), which came runner up. The Playcentre Association backed the southern rockhopper penguin, and a group of Wellingtonians, enjoying the resurgence of kākā around some inner city suburbs (thanks to the Zealandia sanctuary) banded together to support their favourite garden visitor.
Mandy would like to see more children’s groups involved in future. She says, ‘Kids apply a certain single-mindedness to campaigning that’ll no doubt blow the competition out of water in years to come.’
She admits that she herself always secretly roots for the albatross: ‘I had the pleasure of seeing a few up-close in Kaikōura, from a boat. I loved their large, comical powder-pink feet and their plane-like wings. It was like watching a magic trick as it folded its wings into its body. I was mesmerised from then on.’
‘One of the most incredible facts I learnt is that sometimes when they come back to terra firma to breed, they have trouble folding their wings because they’ve been locked into flight-mode for so long. I just love that thought; that they’re true ocean wanderers. They’re up there riding those polar currents for years on end, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see a glimpse of their life as they raise a family. New Zealand is the albatross capital of the world, but most people don’t know this fact.’
Bird of the Year is a chance to showcase the remarkable richness of New Zealand’s native birdlife – with a mix of common garden birds and more endangered treasures in the running: ‘Although it’s essential to highlight the fact that these birds are hanging onto life by a toehold, it’s a chance for us to share some of their quirks, for example kākāpō smell great, the hihi (stitchbird) is the only bird to mate face to face, and the New Zealand robin is mathematically gifted. It helps to create a light-hearted conversation that everyone can engage in.’
When the competition started, common birds, such as pīwakawaka (fantails) and kererū (native wood pigeon), won the title. But Mandy explains that in recent years, ‘we’re seeing lots of birds in the top five that most New Zealanders would have never seen, unless they’d gone out to a public island sanctuary such as Tiritiri Matangi, or a mainland sanctuary. To most New Zealanders these are essentially mythical birds that live on offshore islands. My small hope is that people will join the conservation movement to help these birds flourish, and perhaps bring them closer to home.’
Such has been the success of New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition, that an organisation in Australia is looking to our example to start running one of their own.