Have you heard the news? The pūteketeke is New Zealand’s Bird of the Century!
Although it started as an underdog in the New Zealand competition, the pūteketeke won it all after British-American comedian John Oliver campaigned for it. Here’s what you need to know about this year’s (and this century’s!) winner.
The pūteketeke (Podiceps cristatus australis) is also known as the Australasian crested grebe and is a subspecies of the great crested grebe. While great crested grebes can be found throughout Western Europe and parts of southern and eastern Africa, the pūteketeke lives in Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand, pūteketeke are typically seen in lakes on the South Island, as they’re extinct on the North Island. They’re relatively large birds, with a typical wingspan between 23 and 28 inches (59 to 73 cm).
The typical diet of a pūteketeke is what you might expect from an aquatic bird: fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other small aquatic animals. But in addition to these everyday foods, pūteketeke will also eat their own feathers.
Now, feathers are not a good source of nutrition, so why do they eat them? It seems that eating feathers may be a way to create pellets pūteketekes can vomit up later. This vomiting may help decrease the number of parasites in their stomach.
While this puking behavior is fascinating, pūteketekes are better known for their elaborate courtship displays. Males and females will start facing each other and shaking their heads side-to-side. Some wing lifts are also incorporated into this shaking behavior. Other dance moves include the “weed dance,” where aquatic weeds are offered to partners, and the “ghostly penguin,” where the pair rises up chest to chest while walking on the water.
You know what? You’d get a better idea of pūteketeke dance moves if you watched them:
After successful courtship, a male and female pair begin building their nest. Pūteketeke are opportunistic breeders who will only start laying eggs when the conditions are right. The most crucial requirement for these birds is the amount of covered habitat available to build a nest. Pūteketeke nests are made from aquatic plants woven into existing water plants, effectively suspending the nests in the water. As further protection from predators, parents will cover their eggs with weeds before leaving the nest.
Like many birds, both parents incubate the eggs and care for the young. In what I consider charming behavior, pūteketeke parents will carry their chicks on their backs until they are three weeks old. As the chicks continue to age, the family will split, with each parent choosing specific chicks to look after. Chicks will stay in these family sub-groups for up to 16 weeks.
Forest & Bird started the Bird of the Year contest to bring awareness to New Zealand’s native birds. Unfortunately, over 80% of native New Zealand birds are threatened species, and the pūteketeke is no exception.
Pūteketeke were historically hunted for food in New Zealand, and various other human activities, like disturbing the lakes where they breed, have caused their numbers to drop. By the 1980s, there were only 200 individuals in New Zealand.
Conservationists built floating nest platforms in various southern New Zealand lakes to help rebuild the population. The pūteketeke has started to rebound with this helping hand! While the total population today is still fewer than 1,000 birds in New Zealand, conservation efforts are slowly working.
This is a good lesson for all of us to remember: when humans work to protect the environment around them, even threatened species can bounce back.