Dear John Oliver: Kiwis cry fowl over foreign interference in Bird of the Century campaign

A local conservation advocate is crying fowl over foreign interference in the Bird of the Century campaign.

RealNZ has lobbed the bombshell claim that British-American comedian John Oliver's heavyweight support for the pūteketeke is tantamount to Russia's meddling in the 2016 US Presidential election.

RealNZ chief revenue officer Scott McNab said it was not simply a case of being green with envy - unlike their preferred bird, the kākāriki karaka.

Forest & Bird has upgraded its usual Bird of the Year contest to Bird of the Century to mark the organisation's 100th birthday.

The contest got a boost this week when Oliver dedicated 13 minutes of his show Last Week Tonight to Bird of the Century and his support for the pūteketeke.

It was not the first time the contest had been mired in controversy with previous scandals including something akin to digital ballot stuffing and a mammal winning the prize for the first time in 2021, thanks to the efforts of the long-tailed bat (and its online supporters).

But Oliver's efforts were an unprecedented effort to swing the results with advertising supportive of the pūteketeke displayed in New Zealand, Tokyo, Paris, London, Mumbai, New York, Rio De Janeiro and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

"There are so many fun facts about it, like the fact that they are known for carrying their babies on their backs ... which is adorable," Oliver said, in support of the mulleted diving bird.

"Both parents will incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks - they give each other space to co-parent. They don't stifle each other.

"And you want elegance? I'll give you some 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. I have never identified with anything more in my f***ing life."

While the outrageous support campaign had ruffled the feathers of some, Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki told Morning Report she was unperturbed by Oliver's attempt at fixing the vote.

Thousands and thousands of votes came in after the episode aired, she said.

But the vote-rigging was not unexpected, as the team behind Oliver's show got in touch earlier this year.

"They were keen to be involved and we said, 'Go for it'."

But McNab and the team at RealNZ were less pleased and were now sending something of a Dear John Letter to Oliver.

"What we saw from Mr Oliver reminded us a little bit of how the Russians interfered in US election previously," he said.

"It didn't feel quite right to us, so we decided we would do our best to give the kākāriki karaka a chance to win."

That had meant local billboards to return a local voice to the campaign.

But McNab admitted to not being above the same nefarious loophole Oliver had identified and the tourism company would be tapping into its global database and social media to recruit support from abroad.

The real key, however, was Aotearoa.

"Our belief is that while he might be going global, if we can influence passionate New Zealanders, hopefully we can show that Kiwis still have global power and can deliver a great outcome just by getting New Zealanders heavily behind it," he said.

RealNZ had long been a supporter of the little green parrot.

"We are huge believers in this species. We've just raised $175,000 for it and we think it's a pretty special parrot, and with only 350 left in New Zealand we think we need to raise awareness of it."

That support included an effort in conjunction with the Department of Conservation and Ngāi Tahu to attempt to translocate kākāriki karaka back into Fiordland.

McNab accepted they were facing an uphill battle, but so were kākāriki karaka in the wild.

"We've always believed in the plucky underdog and New Zealanders at their core believe the underdog can stand up and defeat the bigger nations, and so we are hoping this is another example of that."

While RealNZ hoped to rally support for its bird on the home stretch of the campaign, the real win would be long term, McNab said.

"Long-term for us it's more about the conservation piece and the more awareness we can raise, the better. As we look to start the translocation project, that's actually more important for us than delivering this result in the short-term."