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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Oliver interfered in an election - for ‘Bird of the Year’

John Oliver at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, 2022.  (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
By María Luisa Paúl Washington Post

When it came to managing the pūteketeke’s run for New Zealand’s “Bird of the Year” contest, comedian John Oliver took a page out of the history books for inspiration: “This is what democracy is all about – America interfering in foreign elections,” he joked earlier this month on his show, “Last Week Tonight.”

And interfere he did.

After putting up billboards in some of the busiest corners of the world, flying banners over Brazil’s Ipanema Beach and dressing up as the bird on television, Oliver’s contender harnessed more than 280,000 votes in a contest that had previously seen a maximum voter turnout of about 56,000 in 2021. It was a landslide victory for a species Oliver described as “weird, puking birds with colorful mullets” and a quite unusual repertoire of mating rituals. The pūteketeke was declared the winner on Tuesday afternoon – Wednesday morning in New Zealand – two days after contest organizers originally intended to make the announcement, which was delayed because of the magnitude of votes.

“We promised controversy but didn’t quite expect this!” said Nicola Toki, chief executive of Forest & Bird, which runs the annual contest. “We’re stoked to see the outpouring of passion, creativity and debate that this campaign has ignited.”

Since 2005, Forest & Bird, a New Zealand-based conservation organization, has been running the “Bird of the Year” competition as a way to raise awareness for native New Zealand bird species, of which about 80% are threatened or at risk of extinction. But what began as a poll with roughly 800 responses in the group’s first email newsletter has since turned into a full-blown electoral race – with debates, campaign events and familiar-feeling scandals.

For instance, during the 2018 contest, 300 fraudulent votes were cast in Australia for the shag. The next year, an onslaught of Russian votes sparked rumors of election meddling, though the votes were later deemed legitimate. In 2021, the bat managed a once-unthinkable ascent to win Bird of the Year. Last year, Forest & Bird established a term limit of sorts for the fan-favorite kākāpō, a fat, flightless parrot that had won the title many times.

This year’s edition, renamed as “Bird of the Century” in honor of Forest & Bird’s centennial, represented the most intense election seen – in no small measure thanks to Oliver’s self-described “alarmingly aggressive” campaign.

It all started when Oliver’s team contacted the organization several weeks ago, asking if the TV show host could be a campaign manager, Forest & Bird spokeswoman Ellen Rykers said.

“We said, ‘Yep, sure. Go for it,’ and sent them a list of birds,” Rykers said. “They chose the pūteketeke.”

Oliver said he could identify with a bird that has “a mating dance where they both grab a clump of wet grass and chest bump each other before standing around unsure of what to do next.” The grass gifts are part of their “weed dance,” and the chest-bumping move is called the “ghost penguin,” Rykers said, adding that the birds are also known for carrying their chicks on their backs.

The comedian’s exploits included a billboard casting the pūteketeke as “Lord of the Wings” in Wellington, New Zealand. Along the landmark Parisian stretch known as the Champs-Élysées, Oliver’s banner featured the bird in a compilation of every French stereotype under the sun: smoking a cigarette, wearing a beret and drinking wine near the Eiffel Tower, next to the phrase, in French, “Beauty. Grace. Elegance.” In London, a van drove around with a picture of the bird on a throne saying, “Help us crown a real king.”

In pursuit of the Midwestern voting bloc, the team also targeted the 34,000-person city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, with a banner of a pūteketeke splashed in a patriotic red, white and blue.

After Oliver detailed those efforts during the Nov. 5 episode of “Last Week Tonight,” the pūteketeke received more than 10,000 votes overnight.

While Rykers said it was “fantastic that people around the world now know about New Zealand’s birds and clearly have a lot of love for them,” feathers were nonetheless ruffled in New Zealand.

One group campaigning for the kākāriki karaka put up billboards reading: “Dear John, don’t disrupt the pecking order.” Erin Reilly, campaign manager for New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi, called Oliver’s tactics “fowl play” and accused him of “high-jacking Bird of the Century” and of not liking birds.

Though Oliver’s campaign at first left some New Zealanders fearing their newfound competition, Rykers said it ultimately sparked a revolution of sorts – with campaign managers appearing on national television and employing creative tactics to “fight off foreign interference in … our country’s most important election,” as the Dunedin City Council put it while campaigning for the hoiho.

After voting closed on Saturday – Sunday in New Zealand – Forest & Bird was hoping to crown a winner the next day, but the overwhelming number of votes forced the organization to delay an announcement of the results.

“We don’t need the Electoral Commission sticking their beaks into our ballots,” Toki, the organization’s chief executive, said in a news release. “We can ensure the integrity of the Bird of the Century election results in just two extra days.”

In the end, the overall number of verified votes soared past 350,000. On Tuesday afternoon – Wednesday in New Zealand – the pūteketeke was crowned Bird of the Century, prompting Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon to issue a congratulatory statement.

The pūteketeke’s victory stands not only as a low-stakes example of foreign influence but also exemplifies the bird’s fitting “comeback of the century,” Rykers said.

Only 40 years ago, only about 200 pūteketeke were left in the wild – a result of the species’ vulnerability to the introduction of nonnative predators in their habitats and to overzealous boating that often wiped out their floating nests, Rykers said. Through grassroots efforts, their numbers have climbed to about 1,000.

Despite the pūteketeke’s overwhelming win, not everyone played by the rules in this year’s election. About 40,000 votes were made by a single person for the tawaki piki toka, also known as the eastern rockhopper penguin. And in Pennsylvania, a person tried to game the system by spamming the organization with a total of 3,403 votes that arrived every three seconds.

“Maybe that’s the true U.S. interference,” Rykers joked.

In both cases, the votes were discarded.