Last Week Tonight host John Oliver successfully ran a spirited campaign for the pūteketeke, a bird native to New Zealand, in the country's Bird of the Century competition—so much so that it crashed the website.
In the end, the pūteketeke won out—much to the delight of the comedian's fans—but what really attracted attention was the campaign's absurdity, which is not atypical where Oliver is concerned.
Oliver's full-fledged campaign endorsing the pūteketeke extended beyond his show, encompassing billboards, movie-like posters, moving-car ads, and even international banners.
At one point, he joked:
"This is what democracy is all about: America interfering in foreign elections."
The host, clad in a bird costume he claimed was the pūteketeke, even appeared on The Tonight Show and spoke with host Jimmy Fallon about the oddball campaign.
John Oliver Campaigns for a New Zealand Bird of the Century Contest Dressed as a Pūteketeke Birdwww.youtube.com
The campaign ignited an impressive wave of enthusiasm. Forest & Bird, the organization behind the competition, reported a surge of over 10,000 votes overnight, surpassing expectations.
The organization issued the following message on X, formerly Twitter:
“John Oliver's campaign for the pūteketeke to win Bird of the Century has kicked off with more than 10,000 votes coming in overnight! Verifying emails is a massive ongoing job — as you can imagine!!”
However, the overwhelming response caused the voting system to crash, delaying the contest results until the following Wednesday.
The organization was hard at work verifying email addresses and had to urge fans to verify their votes to prevent voter fraud, adding:
"We know that earlier this week a large number of verification emails did not send due to our system being overloaded."
While Oliver garnered substantial support, not everyone welcomed his involvement warmly. Several media outlets and social media users voiced their discontent, defending their preferred bird choices.
Some rival bird campaigns displayed grace amid the competition, while others openly challenged Oliver's influence with witty billboards and jibes, referencing his past voice-acting role as Zazu in Disney's live-action remake of The Lion King. In fact, one billboard declared, “the only bird worse than the pūteketeke is Zazu,” with a Photoshopped picture that shows Oliver with a Zazu beak and feathers.
Addressing the mixed reactions, Oliver clarified that his comedic jests about New Zealand stemmed from deep admiration:
“It’s not because I don’t like you, it’s because I f**king love you.”
“And for the record, all of your birds are great. And it would be an honor to lose to any of them when results are announced on Wednesday. And the reason it’s so easy for me to say that is, we’re not gonna lose are we? We’re gonna win, and we’re gonna win by a lot."
"And when we do that, the pūteketeke will be your Bird of the Century, and there’s nothing any of you can do to stop that right now. Maybe good luck next century, New Zealand.”
On Wednesday, Forest & Bird did not promptly disclose the ultimate count of votes. However, they did mention that the organization confirmed over 350,000 votes, a number exceeding the prior record of 56,700 votes in 2021 by more than sixfold.
The pūteketeke ultimately emerged victorious, with Forest & Bird announcing "BEAKING NEWS"—get it?—that "The pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe has won Bird of the Century 2023" and tagging Last Week Tonight in the process.
And people loved every minute of it.
Nicola Toki, the Chief Executive, expressed to The Associated Press the astounding nature of the situation before the winner was announced, describing it as "pretty crazy, in the best possible way."
New Zealand stands out due to the predominance of birds as the land's primary animals before human settlement. Toki highlighted this by noting the absence of lions, tigers, and bears in the country. Despite the majority of New Zealanders living in urban areas, she emphasized the enduring affection for nature among many of them, what she referred to as an "intangible and extraordinarily powerful connection to our wildlife and our birds."
The Bird of the Year contest has weathered previous controversies. In 2020, scrutineers discovered about 1,500 fraudulent votes for the little spotted kiwi. Two years earlier, a bat won the contest, as it was considered part of the bird family by Indigenous Māori.
This year, the organizers highlighted the removal of more fraudulent votes, notably discarding 40,000 votes cast by an individual for the eastern rockhopper penguin.