By including five extinct species in its Bird of the Year competition, Forest & Bird is providing a way to mourn what we’ve lost – and also to strive to save what remains.
Humans typically reserve their practices of mourning for loved ones. But extending these rituals of grief and loss to non-human animals (and our shared habitats) can also help us appreciate being part of the natural world, not separate from it.
So the recent decision to include extinct species in New Zealand’s Bird of the Year – now Bird of the Century – competition offers an opportunity to grieve in another way. In turn, this may help foster an ethic of care for the environment and greater appreciation of what may yet be saved.
The competition began 18 years ago as a modest campaign by environmental group Forest & Bird to draw attention to native birds, many of which are endangered. It has since grown into a national phenomenon.
Various bird species have their own “campaign managers”, celebrities and politicians publicly endorse their favourite feathered creature, and tens of thousands of votes are cast every year.
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The hotly contested election has not been without controversy, either. In 2019, for example, the discovery of hundreds of votes being registered from Russia led to claims of election meddling. In 2021, it made headlines for allowing a native bat to enter – to the dismay of many, the bat won.
Last year, the organisers were even threatened with a lawsuit over their refusal to include the extinct huia – a bird last seen in the wild in 1907. A concerned environmentalist wrote to Forest & Bird to say: “We need to be urgently reminded of what we have already lost, if we are to minimise further loss.”
This year’s competition – which opens for voting on 30 October and also marks Forest & Bird’s centenary – answers that call.
There are five contenders that have died out: the huia, mātuhituhi (bush wren), tutukiwi (South Island snipe), piopio (turnagras) and whēkau (laughing owl). Explaining their rationale, the competition organisers say:
Eighty-two percent of our living native bird species are threatened or at risk of extinction. We cannot let any more end up with the tragic fate of the laughing owl or the huia.Nicola Toki, Chief Executive Kaiwhakahaere, Forest & Bird
Those five birds represent only a small proportion of the total birdlife lost since first human settlement in Aotearoa around 750 years ago. Fossil record research has concluded that, of the 174 endemic bird species present then, 72 have become extinct.
Adding extinct birds to the Bird of the Year ballot – even if only five – echoes other, similar efforts around the world by people finding new ways to express grief over the loss of nature.
As the global climate crisis rapidly transforms the environment, there have been commemorative practices and rituals more often associated with human loss: funerals and memorial plaques for extinct animal species and vanished glaciers, and monuments to lost landscapes.
In this article from The Conversation, read more about Life in maars: why it's worth protecting a spectacular fossil site NZ almost lost to commercial mining interests.
Because ecological grief differs from human-centred grief in important ways, it can have an upside. For one, it not only addresses an absence in the present, but it can also encourage pre-emptive action to stop losses yet to come.
Furthermore, ecological grief is often accompanied by feelings of guilt over the harm humans have done to the environment, which can create a strong sense of responsibility for nature, as survey research has shown.
Entanglement with nature
Beyond helping prevent further loss of birdlife, commemorating extinct species through the Bird of the Year competition encourages an understanding of the connections that bind all lifeforms together.
Of course, such ideas only seem new from a Western perspective. Despite the violent disruptions of colonisation, Māori and other Indigenous peoples around the world have continued to hold worldviews where biological beings are interlinked in a complex web of life.
Explore this further in Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction.
Expressions of ecological grieving, such as whakataukī (proverbs) mourning the loss of the moa, play an important role in maintaining these worldviews.
The decision to include extinct species in the Bird of the Year competition will likely cause controversy. But saving the planet means moving away from our usual perspectives and ways of thinking.
Find out more about why the Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao voted for huia for Bird of the Century.
Discover more about Conserving our native birds – this is a great introduction to our wide range of resources.
Explore the science concepts that underpin knowledge and understanding about birds and their structure, function and adaptations.
Find out more about our native birds such as the kiwi, takahē, kākā, New Zealand ducks, penguins, godwits, ruru and kererū. For all of our bird related articles and activities, browse through our birds topic.
Find out more about some of the news and research mentioned in this article:
- Bird of the Year becomes Bird of the Century to celebrate 100 years of Forest & Bird – read about this 2023 decision.
- Read this 2019 RNZ article on Bird of the Year: Russian interest in contest piques suspicions online.
- The award to the pekapeka in 2021 garnered attention from around the world, for example in this BBC article New Zealand bat flies away with bird of the year award.
- Find out more about Where to find the Rock Wren Pīwauwau, Bird of the Year 2022 in this New Zealand Herald article.
- Richard N. Holdaway, Trevor H. Worthy & Alan J. D. Tennyson (2001) A working list of breeding bird species of the New Zealand region at first human contact, New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 28:2, 119-187, https://doi.org/10.1080/03014223.2001.9518262.
- The Guardian articles:
- Glacier grief: how funerals and rituals can help us mourn the loss of nature
- Why don’t we grieve for extinct species?
- The New Yorker: Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest in the Shadow of Shake Shack (The artist transported a stand of fifty-foot dead cedars up from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens and across the Hudson, to show New Yorkers what climate change can do).
- Hellmann, O. (2022). Collective memory of environmental change and connectedness with nature: Survey evidence from Aotearoa New Zealand, Memory Studies, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/17506980221114077.
- Wehi, P.M., Cox, M.P., Roa, T. et al. Human Perceptions of Megafaunal Extinction Events Revealed by Linguistic Analysis of Indigenous Oral Traditions. Human Ecology 46, 461–470 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-018-0004-0
Read about the global success of the 2023 Bird of the Year campaign due to American British comedian John Oliver's support for the pūteketeke in this Guardian news story.
Find out more about New Zealand’s birds and the conservation efforts undertaken by the Department of Conservation under the birds section of their website.
New Zealand Birds has information on birds that can be found in New Zealand, including extinct species.
New Zealand Birds Online allows you to search by bird name and provides information on each species, including habitat, breeding, ecology and sound clips of bird calls.