Explained: Why ‘Bird of the Year’ award has created controversy in New Zealand

Pekapeka-tou-roa or the long-tailed bat, one of New Zealand's two land mammals, was added in the Bird of the Year list by Forest and Bird.

Pekapeka-tou-roa, a native New Zealand bat, has won the country’s annual Bird of The Year award, hosted by Forest and Bird, an independent conservation organisation.

The title, awarded to a native mammal instead of a bird, has rung up controversy in the country.

Why was a bat species allowed in the competition?

Pekapeka-tou-roa or the long-tailed bat, one of New Zealand’s two land mammals, was added in the Bird of the Year list by Forest and Bird because “these flying furballs are threatened by the same problems as our native birds – predators, habitat loss and climate change”.

It was for the first time that the organisation has let a native mammal enter the competition.

Tweeting the news of the long-tailed bat winning the competition, Forest and Bird said, “Despite being our only endemic land mammal, most people don’t even know they exist, which makes their win even more outstanding.”

As soon as the winner was announced, many took to Twitter expressing disbelief over a mammal winning the award. Some even mockingly suspected that the next year’s winner would be a fish or a snake.

Forest & Bird spokesperson Laura Keown said in a statement that while the country’s bats are incredible, they are in huge trouble of being endangered. “They live side-by-side with our native birds, roost in hollow trees, and only come out at night to feast on insects… But many people don’t even know they exist. Maybe that’s how they snuck into the competition under cover of darkness.”

While the competition only includes birds every year, they decided to include long-tailed bats to raise awareness about the species and their critically endangered status. Spokesperson for the bat campaign Ben Paris said the Bird of the Year competition seemed like a great opportunity for people to learn more about the bats.

Many thought the bat was allowed entry into the competition to restore the image of the species that went through a lot of damage due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, according to The Guardian, Keown had said the move was not a “public-relations rehabilitation job”.

What is New Zealand’s long-tailed bat?

Pekapeka-tou-roa or New Zealand’s long-tailed bat is one of the two surviving species endemic or native to New Zealand. They are present throughout the mainland and can also be found on some offshore islands in the country.

The species is a small-sized bat with a long tail, which is the only difference between long-tailed bats and New Zealand’s other land mammal, the short-tailed bat.

According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, “The long-tailed bat is classed as ‘nationally critical’ and short-tailed bat subspecies range from ‘nationally vulnerable’ to ‘recovering’. But they are in danger of extinction if we don’t protect them.”

Long-tailed bats fly at duck using echolocation calls to hunt moths, mosquitoes and insects. According to Forest and Bird, “They are as small as your thumb, the wingspan of your hand, and weigh the same as a $2 coin. They are in serious trouble from habitat loss and introduced predators.”

What is the Bird of the Year competition?

Forest and Bird is a nature conservation organisation working across New Zealand to conserve land, fresh water, oceans, climate and economy.

The Bird of the Year competition was started to raise awareness regarding New Zealand’s native wildlife, their habitats and the threat they face. As per the Forest and Bird website, “Tragically, many species are in danger of becoming extinct, so they need all the recognition they can get.”

The competition requires every voter, through their e-mail IDs, to pick the top 5 birds out of the listed birds every year, and then the results are tallied. The birds listed in the competition change every year.

The organisation tweeted that this year, “We had 58,561 verified votes, coming from 100 countries.”

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