New Zealand's Bird of the Year has just been announced as the hoiho. In October this year, as voting for the 2019 title got under way, former grey warbler campaign manager Graeme Hill looked at past controversies - and confessed to some very bad behaviour indeed.
Forest & Bird's 15th Bird Of The Year poll is about to take off and it will be unlike any other, because this year you can vote not just for your favourite bird but your top five favourites. It's not first past the post any more. It's not even MMP. It's STV and it's a game-changing, brilliant idea.
"Why on God's good Earth hadn't they thought of this before?" I pondered, just before realising I hadn't thought of it before either. This makes so much sense, but will it stop the dirty play?
This fabulous bird-fuss should make you proud to be a New Zealander. Despite there being vastly more endemic invertebrates and even reptiles, it's our birds that are the flag-bearers of our natural world - so, dammit, it's a good thing.
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Bird Of The Year does, however, involve humans and that's where, over the years, it's become very weird indeed. Shenanigans, skulduggery, malarkey and other Irish fly-half sounding misbehaviours have emerged and it really has been dirty, awful and ugly. And I, shamefully, have behaved very badly.
As Grey Warbler campaign manager 2007, I sent a very nasty letter to the NZ Herald, which I was shocked to see I'd written when spotting it in the paper the next day. Look, the campaign had been getting in the neck from uppity flash harrys like the kōkako and wood pigeon communities. I'd been working seven days. I was tired. I was emotional. I broke. I'd slandered the kererū as a fat, drunken, puffed-up doofus and enjoyed it. I subsequently copped wrath from wood pigeon HQ, headed by none other than its ambassador Dame Kiri Te Kererū, who intriguingly, in many regards looks like a kererū. I crawled out with an apology that included the standard grovelling excuse, "tired and emotional", which we all know is just sports code PR for sociopathically fonged. Anyway, grey warbler won so ha … bloody … ha.
From that shameful piece of mudslinging it has, thankfully, become deliciously worse. Some Aussie wags thought, quite correctly, that it would be one hell of a laugh if we New Zealanders all went for a shag. Hundreds of votes flew in over the Tasman before the hack was found. Marvellous fun. Nice try.
A couple of clever kiddies in Christchurch frankensteined themselves a cyberman bot-machine that appeared just like normal voters and brought the "White Stupid Faced Heron" a whisker from victory. This wetland dagger-on-chopsticks was naturalised here from Australia only in the 1940s, yet for some bizarre reason remains the perennial favourite of author, agitator and columnist Stephen Braunias who, intriguingly, in many regards looks like a white-faced heron. At the time, he'd recently returned from a short "holiday" in Sydenham, so was detained and questioned at length but, being either unable or unwilling to provide clear evidence of corruption, he was given a sprat and released back into the wild. Suspicions remain.
There were serious allegations of foreign meddling within the 2015 bar-tailed godwit campaign. This is because they spend quite some time in spooky faraway places, they can read minds and they won, with 99 per cent of the votes originating from North Korea.
Big business has shamefully flexed money muscle in an affront to our avian democracy. I can just imagine the boardroom meeting at, shall we say Corporation X, when they suddenly realised their mascot was actually a New Zealand bird and not just a cartoon made up by the marketing department. "Really? What's it called again? This
will be a PR coup. It's OURS! We take it. We have the resources. Ken, take a memo to all staff …"
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So exactly how did the pūkeko win in 2011?
I think it's fair to say the black-billed gull campaign in 2018 over-reached when it threw up appalling insults to other birds on Instagram. There were photoshopped images of semi-plucked candidates in compromising positions, rival birds in flagrante delicto and even images taken from underneath the washing line, where some birds' foo foo valves were clearly visible. These exploitative images were thankfully quickly deleted but once seen could not be unseen.
Bird of the Year is becoming our Halloween. Same timing. We figuratively dress up and pretend, because it's fun. It's way better than Halloween though, because it's distinctly ours. We do it our way and we do it best.
So … why, oh why, oh why haven't the likes of John Oliver and Stephen Colbert picked up on this? They love pointing out to college-kid America how obscurely nuts we can be and it's great comedy. They've laugh-mined the laser-eye Kiwi flag, flying politico-dildos, universal healthcare. Come on. You've missed some cracking scandals. Lord knows we need some relief from Trump gags.
There's a line in the gospels [Matt 6:26] that should make you scream ... at Jesus. To paraphrase, "Consider the birds, they do not work yet the Lord provides". Hang on JC. Yes they bloody do and no, he f***ing doesn't. Most barely get by. Any sensible person who took Jesus at his word should expect to be knee-deep in ravens in short order but you're not, are you, because it's not true.
I must thank the great C.K. Stead for pointing this out to me. Intriguingly, Stead, in many regards looks like Sam the Eagle.
Too many of our native/endemic birds are in serious trouble, sinking or just treading water and they're in nowhere near the numbers they could and should be. We get
used to crappy "normals". Three tūī in your tree with a fantail bonus? Nice. Now go to a predator-free sanctuary. At Tawharanui (a protected mainland peninsula) I saw a flock of around 50 tūī … aloft and going somewhere and was jolted to acknowledge that that's normal.
Remember the Rena Disaster? Ship off Tauranga. Oil spill. Dozens of dead seabirds on the beach. The reaction from Kiwis was immediate, enthusiastic and heartening. It was headline news for days. Maybe 2000 birds in total perished. Awful.
Now consider this. A mature and unexcitable expert in this field, John Innes, did a napkin calculation of how many native birds die through predation each year. Not everywhere, just the 23 per cent of New Zealand that's our conservation estate. The calculation excluded sitting adult birds killed by predators and excluded birds killed when they weren't nesting. What's the toll? About 26 MILLION a year. The veracity of this alarming figure has rightfully been questioned. Innes agrees it's just a lash at it and a bit off.
"The actual total will be vastly larger than 26 million."
Kindly yours, champion Bird of the Year campaign manager for the grey warbler, Graeme Hill, who, intriguingly in many regards looks like a grey warbler.
2015: Bar-tailed godwit (kuaka)
2014: Fairy tern (tara iti)
2013: Yellowhead (mohua)
2012: New Zealand falcon (kārearea)
Bird of the Year voting starts on October 28 and the winner is revealed on November 10.