Victory for bat in New Zealand’s bird of the year competition upsets some twitchers

The victory has riled some fans who are now saying the election was stolen from the birds

Shweta Sharma
Monday 01 November 2021 09:23
<p>New Zealand’s pekapeka-tou-roa, or long-tailed bat, is bird of the year</p>

New Zealand’s pekapeka-tou-roa, or long-tailed bat, is bird of the year

The winner of New Zealand’s bird of the year contest has been announced and it’s the country’s only native land mammal — a bat.

The bat stole the crown of the country's annual bird of the year competition for the first time, in a victory that has riled some bird enthusiasts who are now claiming the election was stolen from the featured fowls.

But it was a hearty victory for the species that has recently seen bad publicity after being linked to the origin of coronavirus pandemic. As many as 7,000 people voted to rank the bat as their favourite amongst the country’s 200-odd native species through an online poll.

The long-tailed bird or pekapeka-tou-roa is one of the species of two bats in the country and it is one of the rarest mammals in the world. It is of the size of a bumblebee when it is born and remains as tiny as a thumb even when fully grown up.

With a total 58,000 votes, the 2021 competition attracted the highest number of votes in its 16-year-long history, said Lissy Fehnker-Heather of the environmental group Forest and Bird, which organises the competition every year.

The bats threw their hats in the ring as surprise entrants in this year’s competition. The organisers said the decision to include a land mammal for the first time was because bats are facing the same threats as birds and are a critically endangered native species.

“No, bats are New Zealand’s only native land mammals, and they are classed as nationally critical. They face a lot of the same threats that our native birds do, so this year, we thought we’ll try and get more people aware of that,” Ms Fehnker-Heather said.

Spokesperson of the group Laura Keown said in a statement: “A vote for bats is also a vote for predator control, habitat restoration, and climate action to protect our bats and their feathered neighbours.”

The second place was held by last year’s champion kākāpō, the world’s only nocturnal and flightless parrot. The bird won by 4,000 votes. In the third position was the tītipounamu, also called as rifleman.

“I like to think that it’s because Kiwis just love their native bat so much, and they just really revelled in this chance to get to vote for the bat — especially for New Zealand’s highest honour, the Bird of the Year,” Ms Keown said.

The election has remained mired in controversy surrounding rigged polls, ballot stuffing and even allegations of Russian interference.

In 2019, more than 1500 fake votes were found to have come from Russia. But organisers noted that they were from Russian bird enthusiasts.

The debutant bat snatching the crown disappointed some New Zealanders who said it was a PR exercise for the bats to revive their image.

“Mr B leaving the house to go do some exercise: ‘The only thing that could push me over the edge today would be a mammal winning Bird of the Year.’ I’m just gonna go and disconnect the internet. Bye,” said Hilary Barry, a Kiwi journalist.

“If pekapeka tou roa can win Bird of the Year despite not being a bird then you can ask out your crush, anything is possible,” said another.

Ms Keown acknowledged that “Bird of the Year is no stranger to controversy, I’ll say that and we always ruffle some feathers.”

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