John Oliver is campaigning hard in New Zealand’s Bird of the Century poll

John Oliver is transforming from a comedian into a campaign manager for one of the biggest elections of the year: New Zealand’s Bird of the Century poll.

On his show “Last Week Tonight” on Monday, he backed the pūteketeke bird as New Zealand’s Bird of the Century, a competition organized by the conservation group Forest & Bird.

John Oliver loves the pūteketeke for its 'colorful mullet,' among other reasons. - Oliver Smart/Alamy Stock Photo
John Oliver loves the pūteketeke for its 'colorful mullet,' among other reasons. - Oliver Smart/Alamy Stock Photo

Oliver listed “fun facts” explaining why the “weird puking birds with colorful mullets” were his pick for the highly coveted avian title.

They carry their babies on their backs, he said, both parents incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks and eat feathers by the hundreds to protect their stomach before throwing up a ball of feathers and fish bones.

“Even its name is fun to say - pūteketeke - it feels like your tongue is tap dancing,” he added.

“And you want elegance, I’ll give you elegance, they have a mating dance where they both grab a clump of wet grass and chest bump each other, before standing around unsure of what to do next.”

To spread the message, Oliver and his show revealed billboards staged around the world.

An ad installed on a New Zealand bus stop described the pūteketeke as the “Lord of the Wings,” while an animated video of the bird played above one of the busiest crossings in Tokyo.

In Europe, a billboard on the Champs-Élysées in Paris depicted the bird sitting at a table of French cheese and wearing a beret, while a van drove around London with a picture of the bird on a throne saying, “Help us crown a real king.”

In Brazil, a plane trailing a banner flew over Ipanema Beach.

The show even put up a billboard in Manetowoc, Wisconsin “because not everyone lives in big cities.”

There are fewer than 1,000 pūteketekes, also known as the Australasian crested grebe, left in New Zealand, as the population recovers from a low of about 200 birds in the 1980s.

Initially launched to raise awareness of New Zealand’s endangered, endemic birds, the contest is usually an annual two-week event and has become a national institution. But it has not been without controversy.

A bat, rather than a bird, won the competition in 2021, while mass voter fraud threatened to delegitimize the competition the year before.

This year, Oliver’s campaign has already had a massive impact, with more than 10,000 votes cast overnight, organizers said on social media.

“This is what democracy is all about – America interfering in foreign elections,” Oliver quipped.

But supporters for other birds in contention are hitting back.

“No, we’re not salty about US heavyweight @Last Week Tonight lurching into the campaign,” the Tawaki piki toka, or rockhopper penguin, campaign said on X, formerly Twitter, alongside a satirical poster. “We’re salty (and full of krill) because we’re seabirds!”

But in Oliver’s eyes, there is “no bird on earth more deserving of bird of the century than this one right here,” he said in front of a giant pūteketeke puppet on the stage of his show.

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