AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Candidates did not know they were running. The winner did not receive a prize. And, on the surface at least, the champion seemed ineligible to compete.
The race was for New Zealand’s Bird of the Year, an annual competition that gives New Zealanders the opportunity to rank their favorite birds from the country’s 200 native species and raise awareness of their ecological plight.
But this year, a long-tailed bat, one of New Zealand’s two native land mammals, took the top prize, contest organizers said Monday.
The audacity of the bat, known as the pekapeka-tou-roa, led some on social media to call the competition a sham and criticize a stolen election. But other voters applauded the victory.
“It really steals your girl / takes your energy from work,” said one Aucklander in a post on Twitter.
Another user saw the discomfort as a potential source of inspiration, writing: “If pekapeka tou roa can win the Bird of the Year despite not being a bird, then you can ask the person you like out, anything is possible.”
Bird of the Year, a two-week campaign run by the conservation charity Forest and Bird, runs like New Zealand’s electoral system through a instant runoff system. The competition has a long history of ballot filling, rigged surveys and even rumors of Russian interference. Last year, a hacker slipped more than 1,500 false votes into an election database, sending a flightless bird to the top.
But this year’s result was not the subject of such deception, organizers said. They had included two native New Zealand bat species among the competing birds for the first time to help raise awareness.
Laura Keown, spokeswoman for the contest, said: “Due to the lack of mammals in New Zealand, the Bat of the Year was going to be a very boring competition. It just felt like a good opportunity to highlight this critically endangered native species and bring it from darkness to light. “
The country’s two species of bats face many of the same difficulties as more famous creatures like the kiwi, which won the bird competition in 2009. Terrestrial mammals are at risk from pests such as rats, cats and possums, as well as the destruction of their forest habitats and climate change. The population is declining about 5 percent a year.
For a long time, a bat led the bird contest. “Quite a lot,” Ms. Keown said he told reporters last week. The lesser short-tailed bat was the only other contender to give the long-tailed bat a run for its money with the voters. Behind them was a kakapo, a large non-flying parrot that was last year’s champion.
Perhaps attracted by the appeal of the cute, fuzzy faces of New Zealand’s native bats, nearly 57,000 voters from around the world participated in 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 really were delighted with this opportunity to be able to vote for the bat, especially for New Zealand’s highest honor, the bird of the year,” said Ms. Keown. said.
Most New Zealanders have never seen the shy nocturnal mammal, which is about the length of a thumb and is capable of flitting from tree to tree at top speeds of more than 35 miles per hour.
“They don’t really interact with people at all,” said Kerry Borkin, a bat ecologist with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. “So we are still learning a lot about bats, which makes them really exciting.”
Once bats have been driven out of an area, it is exceptionally difficult to bring them back, Dr. Borkin said. “We need to conserve the trees we already have and plant more so that in the future there will be more for bats to use.”
Ms. Keown couldn’t confirm if the bats would make another appearance in next year’s competition.
“The bird of the year is no stranger to controversy, I’ll say so,” Ms. Keown said. “We always ruffle some feathers.”