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Strategic voting helps yellow-eyed penguin win bird of the year


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Strategic voting helps yellow-eyed penguin win bird of the year

By Elle Hunt The yellow-eyed penguin proved more popular than the kakapoMarcin Dobas/Getty ImagesAfter two weeks of intense campaigning, New Zealand has crowned its 2019 bird of the year: the yellow-eyed penguin. Known as the hoiho in Māori, the bird was named victorious after a nail-biting final weekend of voting that saw it neck-and-neck with…

Strategic voting helps yellow-eyed penguin win bird of the year

By Elle Hunt

A yellow-eyed penguin

The yellow-eyed penguin proved more popular than the kakapo

Marcin Dobas/Getty Images

After two weeks of intense campaigning, New Zealand has crowned its 2019 bird of the year: the yellow-eyed penguin.

Known as the hoiho in Māori, the bird was named victorious after a nail-biting final weekend of voting that saw it neck-and-neck with the kākāpō, a large flightless parrot. With 12,002 votes of the total 43,460, the penguin is the first seabird species to come out on top in 14 years of the competition.

The hoiho has made history today! In a huge upset, the hoiho has come from behind to shatter the feathered ceiling, and become the first penguin to win #BirdoftheYear. pic.twitter.com/zkobWlTZMb

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— Forest & Bird (@Forest_and_Bird) November 10, 2019

Team Hoiho benefited from an active social media campaign, as well as a strategic voting alliance between the supporters of the three other native penguin species in the running. The bird also received strong support from many in the “Deep South” region it calls home, including the mayor of Dunedin and the cult rock band The Chills.

“What we wanted to do was engage everyday New Zealanders, to hook people with the funny memes, then slip in the educational information,” says Mel Young, of the seven-person hoiho campaign team. “We’re really proud that we’ve been able to put a penguin at the top.”

Team Kākāpō has been dignified in defeat, posting consistently “may the best bird win”, says Young. The national poll is held annually by Forest & Bird, a conservation organisation, and intense electioneering has previously involved Tinder profiles, tattoos and trash talk.

Past votes have also been derailed by mass automated voting and other fraudulent activity. Least year 300 votes were received from one IP address for the shag, a species of cormorant, while in 2015, two Auckland teenagers used their parents’ business software to generate fake emails to cast votes for the kōkako.

Get your votes for this chonky lad in while you still can! Only 4 hours left! #VOTEHOIHO https://t.co/NCvwW2mo8D pic.twitter.com/uEl8KGZHkB

— Vote Hoiho (@VoteHoiho) November 10, 2019



But this year’s election was “totally clean”, says Megan Hubscher of Forest & Bird, following the introduction of a new voting system, improved online security, and independent data scrutineers.

Hubscher said the yellow-eyed penguin’s victory was particularly meaningful given that the species is at its lowest ever numbers, due to threats such as being caught in fishing nets, sightseers disturbing their nests, and climate change. “Hopefully winning Bird of the Year will help put a spotlight on all these issues, and galvanise efforts to save these wonderful birds while we still can.”

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We have received more votes for #BirdOfTheYear than there are Hoiho left on Earth. While that might sound impressive, it’s not. These birds need our help desperately. #VoteHoiho https://t.co/QGSygaSw4w pic.twitter.com/siDV96qgkD

— Vote Hoiho (@VoteHoiho) November 8, 2019

Yellow-eyed penguins are classed endangered, with the majority of the 1,700 breeding pairs residing in the Auckland and Campbell Islands. On mainland New Zealand, where nest numbers have dropped from over 600 in the 1990s to just 162 this year, researchers predict the species could be extinct within 10 to 20 years.

A less diverse and lower-quality diet, due to a diminished marine ecosystem, is also thought to be a factor, says Phil Seddon of the University of Otago. “We’re seeing this ongoing decline that suggests there has been a fundamental change in the population and its ability to bounce back.”

Thousands of threatened species

A recent management plan for hoiho conservation drafted by the national Department of Conservation has been widely criticised for its lack of measurable outcomes. Seddon says that past efforts to protect the marine habitats of the South Island had been too piecemeal, and better planning is needed to balance commercial fishing activity with species survival. “We know enough to know that we need to act now.”

The Bird of the Year competition did a “fantastic” job in highlighting such issues to those outside the scientific and conservation communities, he says. “I think people tend to be aware of a handful of birds they know are endangered and are being well managed, but if you consider we have some 6000 threatened species and over 800 in higher threat categories, effectively we only work on a few hundred of those.”

A report by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services this year found that more than 4000 of New Zealand’s animals are at risk of extinction. But a 2016 study by Lincoln University found that the public’s perception was that country’s animals were largely in adequate-to-good condition.

The yellow-eyed penguin’s Bird of the Year win gives a platform to those working to save the species, says Seddon – though awareness only goes so far. “What would be good is if some benefactor could come forward and say, ‘For the Bird of the Year winner, here’s a chunk of money that goes towards its conservation’.”

Neighbouring Australia will name its Bird of the Year on Friday after reaching a final shortlist of 10 species and removing 4000 suspicious votes. The endangered black-throated finch is the favourite to win after its cause was taken up by campaigners against the Adani coal mine proposed in central Queensland, the site of its dwindling population.

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