This week, Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year is back for 2018 with 59 of New Zealand’s 168 bird species on the ballot for the coveted top spot. The annual poll, which was launched in 2005, is designed to raise some much-needed awareness for the plight and importance of New Zealand’s native birds. With a third of native birds at risk of becoming extinct if nothing is done to protect them, New Zealand’s unique feathered locals are in crisis.
Last year’s winner, the kea, is the world’s only mountain parrots and is known for its curiosity, intelligence and penchant for stealing wallets. Classified as nationally endangered with just 3,000-7,000 birds remaining, the win brought some much-needed awareness for the parrot. However, since the win, the kea has been upgraded from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ in BirdLife International’s reassessment of the threat status of birds.
There is no prize, other than the glory of being the majority of voters’ favourite bird during a one year stretch.
Forest and Bird communications advisor Caitlin Carew says the aim of the game is awareness, leading to serious action.
“Bird of the Year is a lighthearted celebration of our native birds – but it has a serious side. Eighty percent of our bird species are threatened with extinction, with a third in serious trouble. By voting and getting involved on social media, New Zealanders can help build momentum for the campaign, and help raise awareness of our special birds and the threats they face.”
New Zealand’s bird life are threatened by a loss of habitats and the impact of introduced mammalian predators such as stoats, possums and rats – which kill their eggs, young and even attack adult birds.
Each bird is listed on the website with an attractive image, a link to more information about each bird and its status: ‘Doing Ok’, ‘In Some Trouble’, or ‘In Serious Trouble’.
These classifications are important, with some of New Zealand’s birds on the brink of extinction. The fairy tern, the 2014 champion, is down to just 10 breeding pairs, the orange fronted parakeet is suffering significant losses due to introduced predators, and our native seabirds at increased risk of getting caught in commercial fishing lines and nets.
Every year, passionate bird-lovers can choose to be the campaign manager of their favourite native bird. The resulting social media campaigns are often hilarious, sometimes even resorting to smear campaigns to get the point across.
Last year, a record 41,555 votes were counted and Carew says the rise of social media, and the competition’s reputation of producing incredulous international news articles, are the reasons behind the rapid growth in popularity.
“The rise of social media, hashtags and memes has helped campaign managers gain visibility and support in a way that wasn’t so possible a decade ago, and their antics attract media interest which helps spread the competition further.”
Political parties even pledged allegiance to birds during the competition last year, which took place during the uncertain post-election time for the New Zealand government.
While people are only allowed one vote in the competition, that hasn’t stopped some people from attempting to cheat the system. Last year, the polls were plagued with scandal when a Christchurch resident cast more than 100 fraudulent votes for the white-faced heron.
The resident was an apparent copycat act from the 2015 poll’s being tainted by hundreds of fraudulent votes by two over enthusiastic lovers of the kōkako. In an attempt to combat any fowl play in this year’s poll, Forest and Bird are hiding the number of votes that each bird has at the beginning and end of the competition.
Votes will be hidden until midday on Wednesday 3 October and then hidden again from midday on Friday 12 October, to encourage people to vote with their hearts and not follow the flock.
Security on the website has also been increased, and Forest and Bird have bought Dragonfly Data Science on board as independent scrutineers.
It was Dragon Data scientist Yvan Richard who uncovered last year’s voting irregularities using the same computer programme he also used to track voting in the US, UK and New Zealand elections
When Bird of the Year became ingrained in New Zealand’s calendar in 2005, it was the only poll of its type in the world.
“We started it, but Bird of the Year has joined the ranks of pavlova, Phar Lap and Crowded House as a New Zealand icon that’s been pinched by the Aussies, who now run their own Bird of the Year competition,” Carow says.
One of the major benefits of the poll is widely unknown birds getting a chance for some limelight.
“We’ve noticed that lesser birds get a lot of airtime during Bird of the Year. Previous winners include the fairy tern, the bar-tailed godwit, and the mohua. It’s great that New Zealanders get a chance to learn more about birds other than the famous ones: kiwi, tūī, kākāpō and so on.”
Voting for the 2018 Bird of the Year opens on Monday 1 October. Votes can be cast here.
2015: Bar tailed godwit
2014: Fairy Tern
2007: Grey warbler
- This story originally appeared on Idealog.