In defence of Bird of the Year

Every year I hear grumbling on social media about Bird of the Year, and apologies from those running the accounts for spamming everyone’s feed with over-the-top bird enthusiasm. But, I reckon that the Bird of the Year is so incredibly important, and this is why:

For context, I’m currently studying non-human charisma (the it-factor of nature) and whether, in New Zealand, we put more money, time and effort into conserving the critters and plants that we find charismatic over the ones that we don’t. When I tell professional conservationists what I’m looking at they say something along the lines of “duh, of course we do.” But doing a research project allows you the time and space to unpick a problem and look at it from many angles. And this is what I’m doing.

My first job was to define the problem. What do we find to be charismatic about nature? What are the things that make up that attractive it-factor? I read an awful lot of research papers, and my favourite category is the importance that a particular critter or plant has to people. In fact, the importance to the community is one of the factors that DOC use in prioritising conservation effort. But the definition of public here is that we don’t have specialist knowledge about a subject. Some of our birds are so endangered and their populations are at such low levels or on offshore islands that the public isn’t likely to bump into them and learn about them in-person. So, everything that we know about them will come from the media or social media.

And this is where Bird of the Year comes in, with all its enthusiasm and all its noise. The whole point of the campaign is to make the community aware the huge variety of birds in Aotearoa, in the hope that there will then be support for their conservation. Who, before the amazing campaign the ConSERT team at Canterbury University ran two years ago, knew anything about the kakī or black stilt? Who could, without looking it up, could say how many species of kiwi we have? Was the last time you heard about the kakaruia, the Chatham Island black robin, when you were reading the “Old Blue” book to your kids?

The hope is that Bird of the Year will move these birds onto or up the public radar, and they will therefore become newsworthy. We will hopefully then be able to read how the kakī breeding season is going in the newspapers, and get excited for a chance to see a real life tūturuatu (shore plover) or tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin) on our summer break. The hope is that these birds become part of the public’s consciousness so, should anything threaten their populations, we will care and not allow it to happen.

Bird of the Year is two weeks a year, but if it’s too much, do, please, mute us. I admit that we’re noisy. The birds can be too! But, also, go and find out about Kaikōura tītī or mōhua or mātātā, how their population is looking and how you can help to make sure that we conserve all of the birds for generations to come.