RNZ is set to announce the Bird of the Year for 2019 on Monday morning. In honour of this event, and our finest terrible birds, Sam Brooks brings you the third edition of The Spinoff’s alternative contest: New Zealand’s Dirtbag Bird of the Year.
Another year. Another Bird of the Year competition. Another Dirtbag Bird of the Year. It’s that time of year when people lose their minds over birds, buying posters to sing their praises, and advocating for creatures they’ve never even met. It’s kindness and madness in equal amounts.
In past years, The Spinoff’s alternative contest has spotlighted nuisance birds. The magpie who divebombs you for wearing something shiny, the seagull who takes your chip, the swans who are slowly arranging a miltary coup for control of Western Springs park.
This contest has also taken some heat for apparently advocating for the denunciation of any bird, at a time where there are 153 species or subspecies of birds that are considered ‘critically endangered’. Which is fair enough! We should be coming together to save all our planet’s living things, even the ones who can be dicks to us sometimes. If not everybody is equal, then nobody is equal.
So this year, the Dirtbag Bird competition will be a celebration, not a condemnation. These birds are our feathered family, and we love them like we love the uncle at Christmas who has a few too many beers and forgets that his opinions are only popular among Newstalk ZB listeners, and not his relatives. We love these birds, and we’ll honour them, even at their naughtiest.
Especially at their naughtiest!
Now, a truly tremendous number of organisations, including zoos, wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, chose not to take part in this competition. Apparently it’s not good branding for places that look after the welfare of these creatures to be involved with a competition that celebrates (or makes fun of) their flaws. I say nay to them! My friends and family love me for my flaws as much as my strengths, and acknowledging those flaws is the first step.
I present to you this year’s Dirtbag Birds – a mixture of personal pets, protected animals and old favourites. Voting takes place at the end.
Alfonso The Rooster
I reached out to a few animal parks for this piece to see if they had any dirtbag birds who they’d like to nominate for this contest, and one of the few to respond positively was Wellington Zoo, which I now declare to be the coolest zoo in the country. They came back with one offer:
Alfonso, a rooster who took a particular dislike to one of the zoo’s Herbivore and Bird keepers, Jeff.
Alfonso was born at the Wellington zoo, and is one of the many animals that Jeff looks after. Whenever Jeff walks past him, he perks up and crows to taunt him. Also, any time Jeff tries to put seed mix in his feeder, Alfonso tries to attack Jeff’s hands. Even better (or worse, depending on your viewpoint), he tries to get behind Jeff to he can take a stealthy run at the back of his legs when he’s feeding other animals.
Terrifyingly/amazingly, like most roosters, Alfonso has two long sharp spurs on the inside of his legs (separate to his claws. I did not know roosters had claws) that they use for fighting. I interpret this to mean that Alfonso has a permanent manicure. No acrylics here, baby!
My verdict on Alfonso, with zero knowledge of rooster psychology and equally zero inclination to do any research on it, is that he has a secret crush on Jeff and is working things out in his own time. He’s basically Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club, and we have no choice but to respect that.
The wekas on Rotoroa Island
I got in touch with the lovely people at Rotoroa Island, and received an enthusiastic response: their dirtbag bird is their much-loved weka.
The weka were already there when the Rotoroa Island Trust came to the island, and these short queens used to be able to be found all over the country but predation by stoats, ferrets and dogs have reduced their numbers. According to the island rangers from Rotoroa Island, “Our favourite thing about the weka is watching their politics. They’re always chasing each other, often bickering with each other. Their prime real estate locations are around the island’s compost bins and near the picnic tables where weka look out for opportunities to snatch unattended scraps, sandwiches and sausages.
“They are constantly offended by other weka, who are equally certain that the territory belongs to them. They are often to and fro lunging at each other’s rear ends with their bills, sometimes even getting a good spin on when they see an intruder by the tail feathers and swing it round.”
Honestly, that seems like a more civilised way to resolve a dispute that half of the things I see on Twitter. Aspirational!
The weka are also apparently very reliable. As a wildlife sanctuary, there’s no guarantee about what birds people will see on Rotoroa Island, which you’ll find just east of Waiheke. But the weka are “a dead cert”, apparently. They’re not shy, there’s lots of them, and they love the camera.
Also, they love bling and have been known to nick watches or anything shiny. Which as someone who has bought a billion shiny sunglasses from ASOS, I can empathise with. I hope to one day see a weka wearing my $15 oversizeds.
Which is all to say: Somebody commission Love Island: Rotoroa. I want some weka drama, stat.
The ‘hordes of aggressive geese and invasive ducks’ in Western Springs
Thanks to Scott Palmer of Newshub for this entry, taken from their mid-winter news story aptly headlined: Hordes of highly aggressive geese and invasive ducks infest Western Springs.
Look, these are the most famous birds in Auckland. They terrorise anybody who steps foot into Western Springs Park, so much so that if a swan were to run for mayor, I’d wager that a lot of orange-beaked, white-feathered creatures would dutifully show up to vote him/her in. Dirtbags, the lot of them. But also? Maybe aspirational, definitely relatable.
Eating bread given to them for free? I’d do that every day if someone was offering. Especially white bread, which I know for a fact is bad for me.
Being territorial over a place that they barely keep clean to begin with? Just take a look at the desk in my office, which is full of paper that I consider precious but if someone threw out, I wouldn’t miss at all. But it’s mine, so I want it.
And being so famous that you’re more popular than the place that houses you? Iconic. A dream. These birds are Harry Styles and Western Springs Park is One Direction. The park isn’t enough to contain their high camp stylings.
I ask you this: Are these dirtbag birds, or just… the most human birds we know?
Ethel the Hen
When I reached out on that helpful journalist tool known as Facebook (or FACEBOOK), I received general anguish and angst about birds but nothing specific. Enter Harriet Crampton, an aunt to my friend:
“I have a REALLY annoying black hen. The problem started when we named it after my grandmother who was a witch.”
If I got pitches in my inbox that were that strong every day, I’d be a happy editor. I messaged her for the story of this black hen.
It turns out the black hen is one of three: Winifred, Ethel, and Vera. Harriet says, “The lesson is never name a bird after a witch because my grandmother Ethel was all things evil and her namesake is enthusiastically picking up the baton. Grandma Ethel couldn’t sit in a room without starting a fight, and after running away from my Grandpa, took to her bed in her sixties and was looked after by a lovely gay guy called Cyril until she died thirty years later.”
That’s a lot for a bird to live up to, to be honest. Ethel apparently has a voice like nails on slate, and will get up and crow until her throat goes hoarse. She terrorises Winifred – if ever there was a more terroriseable name than Winifred, I’ve yet to hear it – but is afraid of Vera.
“She never lays any eggs. When guests come we have to shut the doors because of the noise. Undoubtedly, she’ll see out her days into the hen version of her 90s.”
We stan a hen-queen. You go Ethel.
Look, is there anybody that we love to throw shade on more than the frontrunner? The kererū won last year’s proper, official Bird of the Year contest in a landslide, but is the bird really so great?
Here’s a few facts:
“Kererū make nests from an untidy platform of sticks in a fork of a tree or in a tangle amongst some vines.” I used to have a flatmate like this, honestly.
“Kerurū are known for an awesome flight display during breeding time. They can breed throughout the entire year, but the peak seems to be between October and January.” Seasonal boning! You get yours, kerurū.
According to NZ Birds Online, an apparently highly scientific website: “Kererū are generally silent except for occasional ‘oos’. Brief, moderate volume ‘oos’ are given when alarmed, such as a harrier flying close by, and longer, low volume ‘oooooos’, with a rising tone towards the end given as contact calls, often repeated several times.” Translation: Kererū are the bird equivalent of that guy who does ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at karaoke and doesn’t have the energy to make it all the way through.
“During the non-breeding season, kererū can be fairly inconspicuous, feeding and then roosting under a thick canopy for sometimes hours at a time. In the breeding season, they can be just the opposite, perching on top of trees and males giving frequent display flights at the start of a nesting cycle. While not a territorial species, an individual will defend a food tree against other pigeons attempting to feed in it too. Fights involve hitting each other with their wings while flapping about in flight and moving only a metre or two.”
So basically kererū are thirsty. Look, I came into this rooting against the kererū, but now I have an odd kinship with this rotund dirtbag fowl. I feel at one with the kererū. I, too, am a dirtbag.
Honourable Mention: The Goose from Untitled Goose Game
It’s not a local bird, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to the undisputed most famous Dirtbag Bird of 2019: The goose from the goose game.
To quote Toby Morris from his review of this game:
“I’ve been the chosen one a hundred times. I’ve rescued the princess, dismantled the evil corporation, found the antidote. Sometimes I get to choose to be the villain too, but always with consequences. A goose, on the other hand, doesn’t feel guilt. True chaotic neutral.
“So would I like to be a goose stealing clothes from a washing line, or running away with a stolen pipe in my beak being chased by a pompous cricket fan who was just trying to enjoy a quiet cup of tea? Is it fun to hide in a hedge with a milk bottle stuck on your beak?
“Yes. Yes it is.”
Now you’ve examined the finalists, vote for your favourite/least favourite right here:
If the above link doesn’t work for you, you can vote directly here.
Votes in the Dirtbag contest close at 10pm on Sunday. The victor will be announced on Monday morning, around the time the Bird of the Year (for which voting closes 5pm Sunday) is announced on RNZ’s Morning Report.