AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The candidates didn’t know they were running. The winner received no prize. And, at least by appearance, the champion appeared to be ineligible to compete.
The race was for New Zealand’s Bird of the Year, an annual competition that gives New Zealanders an opportunity to rank their favorite birds from the country’s 200-odd native species and raises awareness of their ecological plight.
But this year, a long-tailed bat, one of New Zealand’s two native land mammals, flew away with the top prize, contest organizers said Monday.
The audacity of the bat, known as pekapeka-tou-roa, led some on social media to call the competition a farce and rail about a stolen election. But other voters applauded the victory.
“Real steal yo girl/take yo job energy,” said one Aucklander in a post on Twitter.
Another user saw the upset as a potential source of inspiration, writing: “If pekapeka tou roa can win Bird of the Year despite not being a bird then you can ask out your crush, anything is possible.”
Bird of the Year, a two-week campaign run by the conservation charity Forest and Bird, is conducted like New Zealand’s electoral system through an instant-runoff system. The competition has a long history of ballot stuffing, rigged polls and even rumors of Russian interference. Last year, a hacker slipped more than 1,500 fake votes into an election database, sending one flightless bird to the top.
But this year’s result was the subject of no such skulduggery, organizers said. They had included New Zealand’s two native bat species among the avian contenders for the first time to help raise awareness.
Laura Keown, a spokeswoman for the contest, said: “Because of New Zealand’s lack of mammals, Bat of the Year was going to be a very boring competition. It just felt like a nice opportunity to highlight this critically endangered native species and bring them from the darkness into the light.”
The country’s two bat species face many of the same difficulties as more famous creatures such as the kiwi, which won the bird competition in 2009. The land mammals are at risk from pests like rats, cats and possums, as well as from the destruction of their forest habitats and climate change. The population is declining by about 5% a year.
For a long time, a bat led the bird contest “by quite a lot,” Keown told reporters last week. The lesser short-tailed bat was the only other contender giving the long-tailed bat a run for its money with voters. Behind them was a kakapo — a large, flightless parrot — which was last year’s champion.
Perhaps drawn by the lure of the cute, fuzzy faces of New Zealand’s native bats, nearly 57,000 voters around the world weighed in for this year’s online competition — the most in the contest’s 16-year history.
“I like to think that it’s because Kiwis just love their native bat so much, and they just really reveled in this chance to get to vote for the bat — especially for New Zealand’s highest honor, the Bird of the Year,” Keown said.
Most New Zealanders have never seen the shy, nocturnal mammal, which is roughly the length of a thumb and able to flit from tree to tree at top speeds of more than 35 mph.
“They don’t really interact with people at all,” said Kerry Borkin, a bat ecologist at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. “Because of that, there’s so much that we’re still learning about bats, which actually makes them really exciting.”
Once bats have been pushed out of an area, it is exceptionally difficult to bring them back, Borkin said. “We need to keep those trees that we have already and plant more so that there are more in the future for the bats to use.”
Keown could not confirm whether bats will make another appearance in next year’s competition.
“Bird of the Year is no stranger to controversy, I’ll say that,” Keown said. “We always ruffle some feathers.”