When wildlife goes viral

What New Zealand’s bird of the century contest can teach us about conservation

February 19, 2024
This fall, the rare and eccentric pūteketeke took the internet by storm for its funky feathers and freaky mating dance. But how far did its fame go to help its endangered status? [Credit: Steve Attwood | Flickr]

The internet loves voting on animals — the cutest and weirdest, fattest and furriest.

The web’s latest reigning champ is the pūteketeke, an eccentric bird with a global population of just 3,000. Until November, few people had ever heard of it. 

That month, in an absolute landslide victory, 290,374 people across the globe voted to crown the pūteketeke as New Zealand’s Bird of the Century. It left the country reeling in utter “pūteketeke pandemonium,” as Forest & Bird, the conservation group that organized the vote, described it.

Most of the pandemonium was due to the interest, excitement and sheer wackiness of John Oliver, the British-American comedian and host of Last Week Tonight. In November, his team turbocharged a campaign for the pūteketeke.

But for all the hype, can viral internet sensations like the Bird of the Century actually influence conservation outcomes for the animals they spotlight? 

Experts largely agree that these competitions pose no harm to wildlife, but the question of how much good they can do for ecosystems is an ongoing debate – one that sheds light on the tools that get us to care about wildlife and engage in conservation in the first place. For all the fun and whimsy, conservation organizations can leverage these internet sensations into meaningful outcomes by expanding the focus from individual birds to their whole ecosystem’s needs.

For starters, there is a short-term fundraising payoff of such virality. Forest & Bird reported that they received $600,000 in donations as a result of the competition, six times more than what they raised last year.

“As ways to get the spotlight on organisms, [the competition is] brilliant,” said Sophie Fern, a conservation biologist who wrote her PhD thesis on animal charisma and conservation in New Zealand. “But I’m not sure it’s conservation.”

As it stands, the competitions lack the depth to get people to really care about conservation, she said.

Researchers who study people’s commitment to conservation look at three factors: environmental knowledge, attitudes or behaviors such as reducing plastic or electricity consumption, becoming an annual donor to a conservation group and voting for environmental causes.

The most effective way to foster conservation mindsets and environmentally-conscious behavior is through hands-on experience in nature, according to Mat Duerden, a professor of experience design at Brigham Young University. Simply learning about an environmental cause in the abstract or casting a vote in a Bird of the Century contest does not lead to long-lasting behavior changes. 

Bird of the year as a case study

Still, these competitions are not without value. They can prime people to have more knowledge about and investment in an ecosystem, even if they cannot visit it. 

They give the 87% of New Zealanders who live in cities a way to connect with their native ecosystems especially for those wild, remote places where species like the pūteketeke live.

“If you can find other ways to bring people into that story [of conservation] without having to drag them out of the cities and into the middle of national parks, that’s what we will do,” said Nikola Toki, chief executive of Forest & Bird.

Because many of New Zealand’s birds live on remote islands, “the public isn’t likely to bump into them and learn about them in-person,” Fern wrote in a blog post about the competition. “Everything that we know about them will come from the media or social media.”

Attention and understanding is the first step to building a deeper care for a charismatic animal and its ecosystem, she wrote. These efforts are necessary to put rare birds on the radar. 

“That [awareness] can then prime somebody to have a direct experience [in nature] down the road,” Duerden said. “That’s because experience without knowledge also isn’t super effective.”

Once a competition garners such attention, it can open the door to more long term engagement. 

“It’s also an opportunity for the agencies involved to say, ‘Okay, how do we leverage this?’” Duerden said. “I think you have to give people a ‘what are the next steps’ to increase the likelihood that they continue to stay interested in a topic.”

To Duerden, that could look like more information about the animals’ conservation needs, about local conservation efforts, or even about tourism opportunities to build those in-person experiences.

Then, conservation organizations can connect the dots between these figurehead species and the ecosystems they exist in, Fern said. She feels it’s crucial to paint a broader picture of how to support conservation across a whole ecosystem, rather than animals in isolation. They are not “creatures that can be just dragged and dropped elsewhere,” she said. 

Conservation context in New Zealand

Birds’ ecological context in New Zealand is a unique one; the island nation has no native land mammals. Because the islands of New Zealand separated from other land masses 60 million years ago, birds evolved to fill the ecological niches that mammals fill elsewhere across the globe.

Now, human-introduced mammals, like stoats, rats and even dogs, are the largest threat to native bird populations in New Zealand, including pūteketeke.

Nearly half of New Zealand’s bird species are identified as threatened or at-risk, according to a 2021 report from the country’s Department of Conservation. 

On the ground, most of what birds need is quite simple: “We try to keep our hands off ecosystems, but on pest control,” said Ru Collins, the chief executive at the Brook Waimārama Sanctuary in Nelson, NZ.

A primary conservation need across the country is to set aside protected land for birds while catching rodents and keeping them out.

Connecting to the larger conservation picture

At the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, Collins said that such measures can have a “halo effect” on the surrounding area. From the fenced-in, protected parts of the sanctuary, the wildlife still move freely and “spill out over the fences and into the Nelson community.”

The metaphor is a fitting way to describe how competitions like Bird of the Year can be effective.

Colin O’Donnell, a scientist for the New Zealand Department of Conservation explained that the department’s work around pūteketeke “is not specifically targeted for pūteketeke, but rather the wider ecosystem it lives in.” Removing pests and protecting natural space from development helps all of New Zealand’s native wildlife.

Yet, it’s this piece — of how the wildlife fit into a larger context of their ecosystem — that Fern sees as missing from the conversation surrounding the competition right now. 

She hopes there can be more focus not only on the quirky birds who make good figureheads in a wildlife competition, but what elements “make worthy habitats.” Organizations like Forest & Bird can use the symbol of the pūteketeke to illuminate the entirety of the ecosystem they depend on and what work can be done to support it. She gave an example of the kākāpō, another beloved New Zealand bird. Most of the birds live on an island filled with orchids. “You can smell it from a mile away, I’ve never seen wild orchids like that. You walk into the bush and you just get covered with the smell of these amazing flowers,” Fern said. “The story could be told about the amount of work that has to be done to have an ecosystem in which these beautiful, amazing flagship species can live, and that story never seems to be told.”

About the Author

Olivia Gieger

I cover climate change, ecosystem science, and environmental politics. Previously, I covered climate change, coastal resilience, and creatures big and small for the US Fish and Wildlife. A Massachusetts-local, I am now based in New York City.


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