Could it be 'game over' for world-famous bird pūteketeke? Forest and Bird says yes

Pūteketeke are back in the news - and this time, John Oliver has nothing to do with it.

Aotearoa's Bird of the Century has claimed another victory in its 12 months of stardom.

A survey to establish the population of pūteketeke, or grebe, has found its numbers are on the up.

Wanaka's A&P show's farm animals aren't the ones turning heads this year.

"Someone walked around the grounds last year wearing this and did not get this much attention," Petrina Duncan mused, as she walked next to a volunteer dressed head to toe in a giant, homemade bird costume.

"Now everyone's going around saying 'ah, it's a pūteketeke'."

Duncan's among hundreds who took part in this year's great pūteketeke census.

In 2004, there were just 390 pūteketeke counted in Aotearoa.

But filming on cellphones, and clip-boards in hand; volunteers this year counted a total of 1047.

In Otago especially, the numbers are skyrocketing.

"They've basically doubled [in Otago] in 10 years, which is fantastic," Duncan said.

The bird's success is largely due to the work of one man - zoologist John Darby.

He founded the Lake Wānaka Grebe Project, lovingly building makeshift nesting platforms in some of the pūteketeke's last remaining habitat.

"It's wonderful to have so much data and people involved in the whole process," Darby told Newshub.

"I was actually 76 at the time, and I thought we could do something about this, and see whether we can get them going. And that happened."

And while Darby has been caring for the bird for more than a decade, many had never heard of the pūteketeke this time last year.

John Oliver changed all that.

"I want to do to other Bird of the Century candidates what the pūteketeke does to fish in New Zealand lakes. That is eat them alive, and then throw them back up in a ball of feathers," Oliver said on his show.

It's lines like that from the US late-night host of Last Week Tonight that made the pūteketeke a household name in New Zealand, and afar. Months later, his 'alarmingly aggressive' campaign left its mark on Wellington.

Oliver's face joins a number of native birds to feature on a mural near Wellington's Ghuznee Street.

"This is another beautiful celebration of a beautiful event which of course was our Bird of the Century competition in 2023," Forest and Bird's Nicola Toki said.

Toki has raised concerns the Government's latest move to fast-track major building projects could put birds like pūteketeke in peril.

"If a mining interest wants to put a whacking great coal mine on top of a pūteketeke habitat, and that's deemed as in the national or regional interest, there's no opportunity for the public to protect nature in their place," she warned.

"And with no environmental controls, it could be game over for something as specialised as a pūteketeke."

And with pūteketeke still firmly in the threatened categories, others are nervous too.

"Over 90 percent of the wetlands in New Zealand have been destroyed," said Darby. "And this was their habitat. Their place." 

Duncan's also got a word of warning: "We're looking at about 1000 birds so, it's not millions." 

Pūteketeke - while there are more of them than there were 20 years ago, there's no guarantee the rise will continue without further protection.