New Zealand’s Bird of the Year Is… a Bat

The winged mammal is critically endangered and won the award to raise awareness about their existence and importance to the island ecosystem

An image of a small long-tailed bat resting on a human's thumb.
New Zealand's long-tailed bats are about the size of a human thumb and weigh less than a tablespoon of sugar. Department of Conservation (NZ) CC BY 4.0

The long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus), also known as the pekapeka-tou-roa in Māori, soared past the competition in New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2021 contest. Locals were shocked when it surpassed all other bird species by 3,000 votes in the popular competition, reports Eva Corlett for the Guardian. The competition also had the highest number of votes in its 17-year history, with 58,000 votes flooding in from all around the globe.

The Bird of the Year competition is hosted by Forest and Bird, an environmental organization in New Zealand dedicated to protecting and conserving the country's unique flora and fauna. Every year, the competition exists to bring awareness to native wildlife and the ecological plights they face. Voting took place between Monday, October 19, and ended on October 31. In total, 76 species were highlighted in the contest, including the long-tailed bat as the first mammal ever added to the contestant list, reports Gizmodo's Issac Schultz. The island country only has two native bat species: the long-tailed bat and the lesser short-tailed bat. 

New Zealand's long-tailed bats are one of the rarest mammals in the world. Long-tailed bats are about the size of a human thumb with a wingspan the size of a human hand. The tiny fliers weigh less than a tablespoon of sugar, per Gizmodo. Currently, the IUCN Red List lists the tiny bats as critically endangered. Deforestation and invasive predators—like rats, possums, stoats, and cats—have heavily affected bat populations in New Zealand. Most mammals living in the country are actually invasive species that pose a serious threat to the island nation's highly unique avian populations.

However, this year's champion has ruffled some feathers, and many took to social media to express their dismay. Some voters are adamant that bats are not birds and should not have been included in the competition, which some are calling fraudulent. Forest and Bird's Lissy Fehnker-Heather told the Guardian that adding the mammal to the competition was not a stunt; instead, it was done to raise awareness of the species' importance to the island's ecosystems and highlight that they face the same threats birds do.

"A vote for bats is also a vote for predator control, habitat restoration, and climate action to protect our bats and their feathered neighbors!" Laura Keown, a spokesperson for Forest and Bird's Bird of the Year competition, said in a statement.

According to the Bird of the Year Campaign website, voting is like the instant runoff voting system used in New Zealand local elections. The competition has had a history of ballot stuffing, rigged poles, and some rumors of Russian interference, reports Natasha Frost for the New York Times. In last year's competition, a hacker added 1,500 fake votes sending one flightless bird—the little spotted kiwi—to the top of the competition, per CNN's Jack Guy. But organizers of the Bird of the Year competition state that no schemes occurred this year, per the New York Times.

The long-tailed bat received a total of 7,031 votes, beating last year's champion, the personable lime-green Kākāpō. This year, the flightless nocturnal parrot placed second with 4,072 votes, CNN reports.

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