OPINION: Move over Squid Game.
With Auckland stuck in level π, gang members calling for “jabs not stabs”, and Aotearoa realising we’ll have to explain to future generations what a ‘vaxathon’ was, it’s easy to forget that our most politically contentious season is upon us; New Zealand Bird of the Year.
Leave it to a nation of people named after a flightless bird to turn a light-hearted competition for nature lovers into a beaked battle royale.
Te Manu Rongonui o te Tau began back in 2005 with the inaugural winner being the tūī. That started a long tradition of controversy, with many Wellington students believing they had mistakenly voted for a free beer, and the then leader of the Opposition, Don Brash, suggesting the winner should be known by its English title – the “honey-eating beat-boxing bellbird”.
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However, an American rapper then claimed he had already trademarked the name, which led to the National Party issuing a statement that its suggestion was only for something “honey-eating beat-boxing bellbird-ish”. The next year, to no-one’s surprise, Dr Brash supported the kōtuku (white heron).
Helen Clark’s Labour government came under scrutiny in 2006 when the fantail (pīwakawaka) won, leading many to believe that the Reserve Bank, under Sir Michael Cullen’s direction, was simply trying to influence Kiwis into bringing back $1 notes. This rumour was eventually put to rest in 2007, when the Bird of the Year was the grey warbler (riroriro) which, it turned out, was an actual bird and not, as many voters had thought, Winston Peters.
The emperor penguin was included in the 2011 competition, because one showed up in New Zealand and, being between J R R Tolkien trilogies, the country was short on celebrities. It became known as Happy Feet, despite a request from Sir Peter Jackson that it officially be named Bilbo.
While it was beaten by the pūkeko, the emperor penguin was made an honorary All Black, was a guest panellist for 7 Days, and is believed to have ghostwritten Man or Muppet with Brett McKenzie. A documentary on its journey is currently being developed by Netflix, with Morgan Freeman narrating.
Sir John Key’s first year in office saw the kiwi win, suspiciously after he had endorsed it leading up to the 2008 election. He then capitalised on the image of the victorious “Key/Kiwi” brand for almost two further terms in office. Many still believe his resignation in 2016 was only after the surprise triumph of the kōkako earlier that year, and his unconfirmed ties to the bird’s 2015 voting scandal.
Jacinda Ardern endorsed the black petrel (tāiko) in 2018, presumably because it spends a lot of time at sea, diving for fish. The winner for that year was the kererū, which has been banned from Premier House ever since.
With all the salacious scandals seen over the past decade and a half, perhaps none has rocked the nation like this year. Because for all the drama, at least these controversies have involved birds. Now, in an unprecedented move, Forest & Bird has allowed the inclusion of … a bat.
The pekapeka-tou-roa (long-tailed bat) has crashed through the ceiling of this avian party to become the first land mammal competing for Bird of the Year. A great day for diversity, but a slap in the face for those still in lockdown due to a pandemic that was caused by a bat.
Of course, it is unfair to lay the damage Covid-19 has wrought at the feet of all bats, but the timing of this gesture suggests a lack of awareness about the sensitivity of the issue. Birds can obviously relate to the situation bats are now in. For almost 25 years they have carried the stigma of bird flu, and it wasn’t so long ago that birds, not bats, were who humans eyed suspiciously when talk of a pandemic arose.
How did this happen? Can it be as simple as Forest & Bird wanting to shine a light on a highly endangered local species? Or are gangs somehow involved?
Sure, the pekapeka-tou-roa is not as menacing as the pāpago (scaup), and is far cooler than the brown teal (pāteke), but then everything’s cooler than the brown teal. It’s a duck with two colours for its name. That’s just embarrassing.
Warner Bros, though, must be thrilled. It couldn’t ask for a bigger publicity plug for Its upcoming film, The Batman (Pekapeka Toa), unless the bats were to finally clean up New Zealand Bird of the Year’s annual corruption with vigilante vengeance.
Who wouldn’t vote to see that?
James Nokise is a New Zealand comedian, playwright, and podcaster of Samoan/Welsh heritage.
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