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  • After a heated contest, New Zealand’s Bird of the Century was named in November 2023 – the puking and pompadoured pūteketeke. The victory isn’t just for pūteketeke but also for conservation and lively science communication. What is the pūteketeke, and what antics saw it win the worldwide poll?

    Rights: Public domain


    Pūteketeke, the Australasian crested grebe.


    Pūteketeke, also known as the Australasian crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus australis), is a subspecies of the great crested grebe that is found throughout Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. The bird’s most characteristic feature is the striking crest it flares during courtship displays.

    These displays include some of the pūteketeke’s other distinctive behaviours – the birds will walk on water, growl like cats and dive for bouquets of weeds to present one another. They mate for life, sharing nesting and brooding duties equally.

    While they can’t walk on land and seldom fly, pūteketeke are excellent swimmers and divers. Soon after hatching, a chick can be seen riding the waterborne adult’s back, quickly learning to swim when the larger bird dives and resurfaces a short distance away.

    Rights: Andrey Gulivanov, CC-BY 2.0

    Great crested grebe with chick

    A great crested grebe, of which pūteketeke is a subspecies, carries a chick across the water.

    Adults also pass on another habit – feeding the chick their own feathers. They eat feathers to induce vomiting, expelling parasites and fish bones. It’s this habit that first charmed talk show audiences.

    Bird of the Century 2023

    When the Bird of the Century contest was announced, neither voters nor organisers predicted how popular it would become. US talk show host John Oliver propelled the contest to international levels, dressing up as a pūteketeke and renting billboards on the bird’s behalf around the world. Oliver’s writers researched pūteketeke to pinpoint the bird’s funniest characteristics – its mullet-like plumage, regurgitation regimen and comical mating behaviours.

    Bird of the Year campaigns

    The Science Learning Hub’s own Bird of the Year campaigns have been full of humour, from pitting an enormous rainbow chicken against drunken pigeons to taking ruru back to the 80s. Even our Bird of the Century campaign used humour to lament the extinction of birds like the huia.

    Oliver’s campaign shows how playful humour can broaden the reach of scientific kōrero. Like many native birds, the pūteketeke has a precarious existence – from demand for its feathers, introduced predators and eradication of its habitats – but unlike the huia, the pūteketeke is still surviving. With a population of less than 1,000 and now only found in the South Island, the species remains threatened under the New Zealand Threat Classification System.

    In championing pūteketeke, Oliver drew massive attention to the wellbeing of native birds and the work of Forest & Bird, which took in a record $60,000 in donations following the media exposure in 2023. The 2023 contest saw over 350,000 votes cast from 195 countries – the previous record was a little over 50,000 votes.

    Rights: Forest & Bird

    Bird of the Century

    In 2023 the annual Bird of the Year competition became Bird of the Century to help celebrate 100 years of Forest & Bird.

    Using humour to engage people with science

    US writer and professor Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase in science isn’t ‘eureka!’ but ‘that’s funny’.” Discussing science with humour, when done correctly, can spread the information to a wider audience, many of whom will take an interest and investigate further.

    Rights: Public domain

    Isaac Asimov

    Isaac Asimov was a biochemistry professor and author of fiction and non-fiction about 20th century science. His work has had a strong influence on science, with many scientists citing him as an inspiration.

    Within the scientific community, awards like the Ig Nobels honour work as ridiculous as it is useful. In New Zealand, Ig Nobel laureates have profiled the personality of rocks, measured what you smell like when you’re scared and explored how you needn’t be a liar for your pants to catch fire.

    Even Plato recognised that scientists and philosophers, isolated from the intellectual lives of everyday people, may sometimes appear laughable to everyday folk – whose relative scientific ignorance experts may even find equally comical.

    Rights: Public domain

    Plato and Aristotle

    The philosopher Plato shown speaking with his pupil Aristotle in a detail from Raphael’s painting The School of Athens.

    Plato saw this as a danger, warning that “violent laughter almost always produces a violent reaction” – but not allowing excessive levels of mirth does suggest that well-tempered comedy has a place in scientific conversation.

    Oliver’s antics on behalf of the pūteketeke, just like viral favourites such as Drunk History or IFL Science, are not easy to mistake for hard scientific discourse. Nevertheless, they spread curiosity – that most scientific of impulses, the irreducible lure of Asimov’s “that’s funny” – in ways that educators and science communicators shouldn’t ignore.

    Nature of science

    Communication – between scientists and with the public – is a crucial element in the scientific process. Exploring the place of humour in this communication raises broader questions about science and society.

    Related content

    ‘Communicating in science’ is one of the four substrands of the nature of science strand in the New Zealand science curriculum. This article looks at how it is described in the New Zealand curriculum.

    Forest & Bird’s Bird of the Century 2023 competition also included five extinct species. Discover why this is important in Call of the huia: how NZ’s bird of the century contest helps us express ‘ecological grief’.

    Inspired by the succes of the Bird of Year, the Entomological Society of New Zealand started the Bug of Year competition in 2023. In 2024 the red admiral butterfly won.

    Activity idea

    Poetry with Fred the Thread is a ready-to-use cross-curricular teaching resource that uses a humorous poem read by author and scientist Dr Robert Hoare. There is a middle primary and an upper primary version.

    Useful links

    Find out more about the pūteketeke on the New Zealand Birds Online website.

    Read about the global success of the 2023 Bird of the Year campaign due to comedian John Oliver’s support for the pūteketeke in this Guardian news story.

    See highlights from Drunk History on Comedy Central’s YouTube page.

    IFL Science started as a Facebook group, but now has its own website.

    “lemme get uhhhhh froot”: Internet memes for consciousness-raising in Aotearoa’s Bird of the Year conservation campaign is a 2022 study about Bird of the Year memes published in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology.

    Connect with other science communicators through SCANZ, the Science Communicators’ Association of New Zealand.

    Access the New Zealand Threat Classification System (NZTCS) database here.

    Activity idea: Check out this simple activity on the Kiwi Conservation Club (KCC) website – make a pop-up pūteketeke card.

      Published 13 February 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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