The pukeko has gone from pest to New Zealand icon, starring in TV commercials, gracing souvenirs and almost upstaging the kiwi. So how did a long-legged, ungainly bird — the bane of farmers’ lives — become a celebrity, asks Dionne Christian.

Merrin, a suburban Auckland mother of two, is at war with her neighbours.

They've entered her home uninvited, defecated on the floor, hissed at her children and, despite her and her husband turning their vegetable garden into Fort Knox, waited until crops are ripe and then staged a midnight raid to steal the lot.

One of the most horrific incidents was when Merrin showed her kids, seven and four, a baby duckling swimming in the estuary. The neighbours ate it. And she's pretty sure they also attacked Foxy, the family's two-year-old cat, who's still traumatised by them.

It's unlikely Auckland Council or the police will take action, because Merrin's neighbours are pukeko. That's right: the iridescent deep blue birds with bright red beaks who, along with the silver fern, kiwi and pohutukawa, have joined our pantheon of iconic symbols.


Don't believe they're that famous?

Look around and you'll see pukeko everywhere - not just grazing in their favourite places of swamps, streams, boggy roadsides and ditches, estuaries and fields. The birds, relatives of the endangered takahe, grace kiwiana souvenirs from luggage tags and passport holders to ceramic dinner plates and hand-painted wine glasses; we're reading about them in books, singing about them in children's songs and wearing clothing and hats with pictures of pukeko emblazoned across them. And let's not forget that the Genesis Energy television ads, with the pukeko acting cute, are some of the most popular of recent years.

It helps explain why we voted the pukeko Bird of the Year last year in Forest & Bird's annual survey of our favourite feathered friends. Of 7851 votes, pukeko captured 1480, followed by the kakapo on 1068. The kiwi, our national symbol and the bird that gives us our nickname, didn't even make the top 10 despite having won in 2010.

So what is going on when a bird-come-lately, sometimes regarded by its closest neighbours as a pest, is elevated to icon status? Not only that, but the pukeko is an Australian import, thought to have arrived here at least 400 years ago. Over the Ditch, it's known more prosaically as the purple swamp hen and there are more of them throughout the world.

The rise of the pukeko and its transformation from pest and scavenger to national symbol is a story that can teach much about the importance of being flexible, adaptable and social. More significantly, the pukeko may be unwittingly playing a role in raising awareness of New Zealand birds in general and helping to grow a generation with greater awareness of native flora and fauna.

Dr Rick Starr, senior lecturer in the marketing department at the University of Auckland's business school, says anthropomorphism, giving human traits to animals, has been done for centuries (the term itself was coined in the mid-1700s).

We've seen increasing examples in children's literature, television programmes, film and commercials pretty much ever since.

Starr says pukeko have a number of things going for them to make them prime candidates for anthropomorphism and, by extension, use in branding, advertising and marketing. First, there's the name.


"Pukeko may be hard to spell but fun to say - especially for children - and nice to hear. It's much more interesting than 'purple swamp hen', so I think Maori did them a great favour by calling them pukeko."

They're also striking to look at and, brightly coloured, which makes them eye-catching.

Kathy MacVicar, who owns the New Zealand retail and online giftware store chain Flying Saucers, says any item with a pukeko on it outsells other similar products by about 20 to one.

"And the economy being the way it is, you need to have some 'sure bets' for sale. I can guarantee that anything with a pukeko on it will do well. I mean if you're buying a luggage tag, you want something bright and bold that will stand out, don't you?"

Starr says pukeko are also visual in that most New Zealanders don't have to go out of their way to see one. "It's a shame kiwi don't come out more often during the day," he sighs.

Pukeko are endearing to watch as they strut around on their long and frequently ungainly reddish-orange legs, searching for food - shoots, roots, seeds, vegetables (especially, much to the consternation of farmers, newly planted ones) and, less commonly, insects, worms, small eels and fish, frogs, bird eggs and very young birds.

Because they're not endangered, no official census has been done but there's thought to be about 600,000 around New Zealand.

Wendy Jensen is the co-founder of North Shore-based Kids Music Company, which has a huge selection of purpose-written music for children. In 2000, after watching pukeko on the roadside, she wrote The Pukeko Stomp as a local alternative to the Bird Dance.

"The kids and I were always fascinated by their long, skinny legs and wondered how those legs could support their bodies, let alone run as fast as they do. We loved the way they moved and the colours were quite beautiful - the red of the beak, the blue and black body feathers and the white feathers around the bottom that looked like a ballerina's tutu. They were just waiting to have a song written about them."

Likewise, author Sally Sutton, who has just published her humorous book, The Diary Of A Pukeko, a kind of ornithological "Adrian Mole" story, chose pukeko because "everyone knows them".

"They are just really cool birds: big, bright, brash, clumsy and funny. They're social animals, so it's easy to see them as alter egos for human beings. We know they live dangerously - we've seen the road-kill - and do naughty things, like going on potato plunders in farmers' fields but they have some touching habits."

Indeed they do. Pukeko are survivors, partly because they migrated from Australia where they'd adapted to living alongside predators. They're territorial, live in permanent social groups and defend a shared territory used for feeding and breeding. All eggs are laid in a single nest and group members - male and female - raise the young collectively. Woe betide anyone who threatens their young. Pukeko have attacked stoats, cats and children who come too close.

Sutton says co-operation as a species is their key to success: "There's a message in that for us all. Hopefully this has come through in my book."

The pukeko was just what Genesis Energy was looking for when, in 2007, it started its popular TV ads.

The company's public affairs manager, Richard Gordon, says pukeko were originally chosen not because of their good looks and charm, but because the diverse range of materials they use to build nests fitted with a message Genesis wanted to project about the diversity of its power generation sources.

Shortly after the ads began screening, publishers Scholastic Books asked author and artist Betty Brownlie to add the pukeko to her series of wildlife life cycle books, which included the common sparrow, the hedgehog, the common frog, the royal albatross and the kiwi.

Brownlie was rapt, seeing it as an opportunity to learn more about a bird she describes as taken for granted. She says its elevation to stardom via television meant the pukeko had a spectacular rise in popularity and, like all celebrities, the public got curious about the birds and their private lives.

She hopes this interest may extend to other birds and says she'd happily write life cycle books about tui and kakapo because she doubts we know too much about those birds, either.

Meanwhile, Gordon says Genesis had no particular view on what the TV appearances might do for the pukeko's profile or reputation but he's thrilled they seem to have prompted more people to think about birds and wetlands in general.

Forest and Bird's advocacy manager, Kevin Hackwell, says the pukeko is one of the best ambassadors for New Zealand wetlands.

"Unfortunately 90 per cent of our swamplands have been drained to make way for farms and other developments, so our pukeko have taken up the role as scavengers, sometimes picking on crops and foraging alongside motorways. Wetlands are incredible bird-magnets, so protecting and restoring them is crucial."

But there's a bigger picture. The interest in Genesis Energy, generated by the pukeko, has highlighted the conservation work it assists with involving other native birds, notably the whio (blue duck) and kiwi.

To obtain resource consent to run its Tongariro River power scheme, Genesis worked with the Department of Conservation, Forest & Bird and other conservation groups to better understand the impact of hydro power scheme operations on the threatened whio and its habitat.

The result is a recovery programme, in partnership with the Department of Conservation, which funds initiatives to protect and grow whio populations. Ultimately, those involved would like to see whio numbers boosted so it's no longer classified as being under threat.

At its Waikaremoana power scheme, the company is involved with the Lake Waikaremoana Hapu Restoration Trust and a local kiwi restoration project begun in 2005.

This was orignally scheduled to run for four years but has been been so successful that support has been extended to 2017, with other areas around Lake Waikaremoana primed for the release of more kiwi.

Gordon acknowledges there have been complaints from a small number of rural customers asking why a bird they regard as a pest is getting the celebrity treatment, but he says those are a tiny minority compared to the number of people who, through market research and direct feedback, say they love the pukeko campaign and the birds themselves.

Even Merrin, the Auckland mum, acknowledges that despite everything she admires the plucky pukeko and their intelligence, sociability and commitment to one another. They make her laugh when, during early autumn, they steal feijoas and run full-tilt down the street with the fruit stuffed in their mouths.

"We're living in their habitat, aren't we? We have to learn to live alongside them. I'd probably hate to see them go. They're the bane of my life but I do love them."