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Puking bird is named New Zealand’s ‘Bird of the Century’ after campaign by John Oliver

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Comedian John Oliver has succeeded in his campaign to have what he describes as a weird, puking bird with a colorful mullet win New Zealand’s Bird of the Century contest.

He managed to elbow out the iconic national bird, the kiwi.

Conservation group Forest and Bird announced Wednesday that Oliver’s favored water bird, the pūteketeke, had won after Oliver went all-out in a humorous campaign for the bird on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” The North Island brown kiwi came in second.

Vote checkers in New Zealand were so overwhelmed by Oliver’s foreign interference they had to postpone naming the winning bird for two days.

Usually billed Bird of the Year, the annual event is held to raise awareness about the plight of the nation’s native birds, some of which have been driven to extinction. This year, the contest was named Bird of the Century to mark the group’s centennial.

Oliver exploited a loophole in the rules allowing anybody with a valid email address to cast a vote.

Oliver had a billboard erected for “The Lord of the Wings” in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. He also put up billboards in Paris, Tokyo, London and Mumbai, India. He had a plane with a banner fly over Ipanema Beach in Brazil. And he wore an oversize bird costume on Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show.”

“After all, this is what democracy is all about,” Oliver said on his show. “America interfering in foreign elections.”

Forest and Bird did not immediately release the final vote tally Wednesday but said the group received more than 350,000 verified votes, more than six times the previous record of 56,700 votes in 2021.

They said Oliver’s “high-powered” campaign temporarily crashed their voting verification system.

Comedian John Oliver, dressed as a pūteketeke bird, on “The Tonight Show” last week.Todd Owyoung / NBC via Getty Image

“It’s been pretty crazy, in the best possible way,” Chief Executive Nicola Toki told The Associated Press before the winner was announced.

New Zealand is unusual in that birds developed as the dominant animals before humans arrived.

“If you think about the wildlife in New Zealand, we don’t have lions and tigers and bears,” Toki said. Despite nearly nine of every 10 New Zealanders now living in towns or cities, she added, many retain a deep love of nature.

“We have this intangible and extraordinarily powerful connection to our wildlife and our birds,” Toki said.

The contest has survived previous controversies. Election scrutineers in 2020 discovered about 1,500 fraudulent votes for the little spotted kiwi. And two years ago, the contest was won by a bat, which was allowed because it was considered part of the bird family by Indigenous Māori.

This year, the organizers said they eliminated more fraudulent votes, including 40,000 cast by a single person for the eastern rockhopper penguin.

Toki said that when the contest began in 2005, they had a total of 865 votes, which they considered a great success. She said the previous record vote count was broken within a couple of hours of Oliver launching his campaign.

Toki said Oliver contacted the group earlier this year asking if he could champion a bird. They had told him to go for it, not realizing what was to come.

“I was cry laughing,” Toki said when she watched Oliver’s segment.

Oliver described how the pūteketeke, which number less than 1,000 in New Zealand and are also known as the Australasian crested grebe, eats its own feathers before vomiting them back up.

“They have 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,” Oliver said on his show, adding that he’d never identified more with anything in his life.

Some in New Zealand pushed back against Oliver’s campaign. One group put up billboards reading: “Dear John, don’t disrupt the pecking order,” while others urged people to vote for the kiwi. Oliver responded by saying the kiwi looked like “a rat carrying a toothpick.”

“For the record, all of your birds are great, and it would be an honor to lose to any of them when the results are announced on Wednesday,” Oliver said on his show. “The reason it is so easy for me to say that is that we aren’t going to lose, are we? We are going to win, and we are going to win by a lot.”

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