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With a Boost From John Oliver, Pūteketeke Soars to First in New Zealand Bird Contest

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Two exotic birds with long necks float towards each other, partially submerged in water. Long green grass stretches up behind them.
Pūteketeke are pictured in Lake Alexandrina on South Island, New Zealand, in this undated handout photo. (Leanne Buchan/ Reuters)

A threatened bird called the pūteketeke landed the top spot in a New Zealand bird contest after comedian and talk show host John Oliver unleashed a zany, worldwide campaign on its behalf.

The New Zealand conservation organization Forest & Bird held the contest for Bird of the Century, asking people in the country and abroad to vote for their favorite threatened species among dozens of contestants.

The Last Week Tonight host said his staff asked Forest & Bird if they could campaign for the pūteketeke, a native water bird with a distinctive black-brown frill around its neck, and the group agreed.

“I don’t think they understood quite what they were unleashing when they said, ‘Go for it,’ ” said Oliver, dressed as a pūteketeke, during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.


To boost support for the species, which he called “magnificent” and “charming,” Oliver did a Last Week Tonight segment hyping the pūteketeke and took out billboard ads for the bird in New Zealand, the U.S., India, Japan and elsewhere.

“This is what democracy is all about: America interfering in foreign elections,” he joked on his show.

The meddling paid off.

Forest & Bird announced Wednesday that the pūteketeke won the contest with a whopping 290,374 votes.

By comparison, the North Island brown kiwi secured second place with only 12,904 votes.

“We promised controversy but didn’t quite expect this!” Forest & Bird Chief Executive Nicola Toki said in a statement. “We’re stoked to see the outpouring of passion, creativity and debate that this campaign has ignited.”

Even New Zealand’s incoming Prime Minister Christopher Luxon applauded the talk show host for vaulting the pūteketeke to victory.

“Congratulations to campaign manager @iamjohnoliver and all those who gave their support to the Pūteketeke,” Luxon said in a tweet.

A couple walks past a bus billboard depicting a parody of Lord of the Rings featuring unusual birds. "Lord of the wings," it reads. "One bird to rule them all."
A billboard at a bus stop promotes comedian John Oliver’s campaign for the pūteketeke to be named New Zealand’s Bird of the Century on Saturday in Wellington. (Nick Perry/ AP)

Also known as the Australasian crested grebe, the pūteketeke has a pointy black beak and a long white neck and is known for its strange behaviors.

The species boasts a bizarre mating ritual, carries around its young on its back in the water and has been known to eat its own feathers before vomiting them back up.

“Pūteketeke began as an outside contender for Bird of the Century but was catapulted to the top spot thanks to its unique looks, adorable parenting style, and propensity for puking,” Toki said.

According to Forest & Bird, there are fewer than 3,000 of the birds across New Zealand and Australia, but that number was even lower a few decades ago and has been steadily increasing thanks in part to conservation efforts.

The group noted that more than 80% of the native birds in New Zealand are on the threatened species list.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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