Dear Readers, New Zealand has just announced its ‘Bird of the Century’, the Australasian Crested Grebe and when I saw photos of it I was slightly puzzled. Surely this was a straightforward Great Crested Grebe, as spotted on the reservoir at Walthamstow Wetlands only the day before? And indeed it was, though the bird, known in Maori as the pūteketeke or ‘puking bird’ is the Australasian subspecies, Podiceps cristatus australis.
The bird had an able ‘campaign manager’ in the form of television host and comedian John Oliver. He bought up billboards in New Zealand (famous for the Lord of the Rings films) and popped up a photo of the bird with the words ‘Lord of the Wings’. He managed to persuade the American host of the Today Show to appear dressed as a Great Crested Grebe (sadly I’ve been unable to find a photo of the costume). He campaigned not only in New Zealand, but in the UK, US, Japan and France, and flew a plane above Rio de Janeiro with a campaign banner. The competition normally only attracts about 35,000 votes, but this year it received over 350,000, with 290,000 for the pūteketeke.
What’s with all this stuff about puking though? Apparently the bird will sometimes eat feathers and then regurgitate them in order to reduce its parasite load. Personally, I suspect that the temptation to link the bird’s name, pūteketeke. to puke was too good for Oliver to miss. But anyhow, here we are. The Australasian Great Crested Grebe is rare in New Zealand (less than 1000 pairs), so it could probably do with all the help it can get.
Personally, though, my favourite New Zealand bird is probably the Kakapo. Who can forget that magnificent film where a particularly randy bird attempts to mate with the cameraman’s head? And what’s not to love about a rare, noctural, flightless parrot? And there are only 252 of them (as at 2023). Come on people!
And then there’s the rather splendid Kea, another parrot but one which has had a rather trickier relationship with humans. Intelligent and destructive, it was accused of injuring sheep and other domestic animals, and while this proved to be true, the subsequent hunting reduced Kea numbers to less than 5000. These days the bird is protected, so it can dismantle cars and torment tourists as much as it likes.
And who can resist a Kiwi, with its nostrils at the base of its beak and the fact that its eggs are larger as a percentage of body weight than those of any other bird on earth?
So, whatever you think about the campaign for New Zealand’s Bird of the Century (and the knocking of the Kiwi off the top of the chart has led to charges of ‘foreign interference’ which it’s difficult to dispute under the circumstances), it’s always good to see birds in the news, particularly rare birds. The extraordinary birds of New Zealand need all the loving attention and protection that they can get, as they face threats from habitat destruction, climate change and invasive species. Long may they continue to be a source of dissension.