In a huge upset to New Zealand birds, but a win for one of the country’s only native land mammals, a bat has swooped in “by a long way” to take out the annual bird of the year competition.
Forest and Bird, which runs the election, threw the bat among the pigeons as a surprise entry this year. The pekapeka-tou-roa, or long-tailed bat, is one of two bats in the country and one of the rarest mammals in the world. It is as small as a thumb, and the size of a bumblebee when it is born.
The voting closed on Sunday night, which appropriately was Halloween. Forest and Bird’s Lissy Fehnker-Heather announced the win to RNZ’s Morning Report on Monday.
The pekapeka-tou-roa flew ahead of the avian flock by 3,000 votes, she said, adding that this year’s competition drew the highest number of total votes in the competition’s 17 year history.
“We had about 58,000 votes and they came from all around the world,” she said.
On being asked whether the bat’s entry was a stunt, Fehnker-Heather said: “No, bats are New Zealand’s only native land mammals, and they are classed as nationally critical. They face a lot of the same threats that our native birds do, so this year, we thought we’ll try and get more people aware of that.”
Rats, possums, stoats and cats are all a major threat to the species, and responsible for its population declining by roughly 5% a year, she said.
The bat may have been helped in the polls by powerful backers: New Zealand’s ministry of environment announced it what endorsement the pekapeka campaign.
In second place was the world’s only the only nocturnal and flightless parrot and last year’s champion, the kākāpō. In third was the tītipounamu, or rifleman, considered by Māori to be the messenger to the gods. In fourth, was the cheeky Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, known for destroying cars and being exceptionally clever. In fifth place was the Antipodean Albatross, one of New Zealand’s largest seabirds.
The annual competition is no stranger to controversy.
In 2019, the arrival of hundreds of votes from Russia sparked claims of election meddling. The votes were ultimately judged legitimate, and a Forest and Bird spokesperson said at the time that interest from Russian ornithologists may be responsible.
The year before, Forest and Bird alleged that 300 fraudulent votes were cast in the online ballot by Australians attempting to rig the contest in favor of the shag.
Fehnker-Heather demured on whether further threatened flying species such as bees would be included in future competitions, saying only that “it wouldn’t be Bird of the Year without a scandal”.