Confessions of a Bird of the Year campaign manager

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with typically smug expressions

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with unpleasantly smug expressions (click for image credit)

Last November I posted about that great New Zealand institution (yes, I reckon I can call it that now) the annual Bird of the Year poll.

For the following 12 months I harboured a secret longing to become a Bird of the Year campaign manager for one particular candidate – the brown skua. Like most New Zealanders I love an underdog, and anyway brown skuas are cool. Did you know they often live in family units with a female head of nest-hold who takes two or more mates?

As November 2014 approached, I emailed the Bird of the Year folks and begged to be a campaign manager. I was sure I was early enough to stake my claim to the brown skua, but NO! Who’d got in first? Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei – whose winning 2013 campaign for the mōhua propelled that bird to superstardom!

Okay – next choice. It was suggested to me that a similarly reviled underdog was the black-backed gull. You know – the one that would eat your leftover fish and chips plus a passing duckling all in one gulp?

I was sold!

I decided to plan a negative campaign. I mean, really, why would you vote for these pests? Black-backed gulls are ‘super-abundant’. They’re the only native birds – apart from the self-introduced spur-winged plover – that are NOT protected under the Wildlife Act, and for good reason. Aided and abetted by humans, black-backed gull populations have exploded over the last century or so.

I decided my campaign would encourage people not to vote for the black-backed gull, but instead for some of the rarer native birds that it displaces or attacks. To that end, I invented a gull character – Captain Cack the Black-back – from whom all campaigning would ostensibly come.

Next I invited one of my favourite local illustrators – Gavin Mouldey – to join in as co-manager, which he happily did. (He lives in Wellington’s Island Bay and beach life is a major theme in his work.)

Captain Cack’s initial campaign blurb was deemed ‘too controversial’ to go onto the main Seabird of the Year site – although you can see parts of it regurgitated (because that’s what birds do) on the campaign blog and more will be added soon.

Cack also, appropriately, has a Twitter account – which I have to be careful not to post from over-zealously! Today in Cack’s Twitter feed was a lovely announcement about buff weka chicks hatching, along with a photo of the adorable little things.

In my head I heard Cack say, ‘Yum!’ and before I knew it, that was what I/Cack had tweeted in reply.

It was several minutes before I realised that no matter how much in the spirit of humour my tweet was, it could seriously offend the people who posted the chick photo. So I deleted it.

(Actually I was travelling on the Wairarapa train at the time, and just as I thought to delete the tweet, the train went into the second-longest tunnel in New Zealand, and I had to wait many excruciating minutes until I had cellphone coverage again – all the while desperately hoping no one would be offended in the meantime.)

So that was day two of the campaign. There are three weeks in all for us campaign managers to get our messages across and for YOU to vote - you have until 24 November.

But whatever you do – don’t back the black-backs!

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Julia || November 10th, 2014

    Such a great campaign Johanna. I love how you’ve gotten into the character of Captain Cack. Unfortunately you’re too thoughtful. I think if it were me I would have only deleted the “Yum!” tweet after someone had become offended.
    Anyway, I’ll play my part and vote for any bird but Captain Cack!

  2. Comment made by Ross Somerville || November 12th, 2014

    Not sure how I feel about this, Johanna. After working on the interminable seabirds entries in Te ara I have a deep-seated antipathy to all those creatures you can hear honking, screeching and vomiting on National radio every morning. I even gave Tina Troup a hard time about it when she kindly turned up at the te Ara Creative and Intellectual Life launch (sorry, Tina). Whether New Zealand should pride itself on being the ’seabird capital of the world’ (horrid expression) or simply accept that we are an island nation which has had limited opportunity to evolve delightful and colourful songbirds is perhaps a subject for discussion. I’m sorry. but I’m not voting for any of those squawking harpies. They can honk and gobble it out amongst themselves. ‘Fancy that!’, he said, handing a rhinocerous to the pigeon fancier.’ (J. B. Morton, aka Beachcomber).

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