John Oliver ruffles feathers in New Zealand's Bird of the Century election

The pūteketeke, also known as an Australasian crested grebe
The pūteketeke is considered to be in serious trouble by New Zealand conservationists

An annual vote to elect New Zealand's favourite bird has exploded into an international public relations battle that is ruffling some feathers.

Bird of the Year seeks to raise awareness of the country's many native species that are considered in danger.

The stakes are higher this year, with the winner to be dubbed Bird of the Century in celebration of the event organiser's founding.

And now one bird has got the backing of US chat show host John Oliver.

On Sunday, he launched his campaign in support of one of the competition's 75 candidates, the pūteketeke, on his late-night show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The rules of the election mean that anyone can campaign for a candidate, not just those living in New Zealand.

"They puke, they do a 'weed' dance before mating, they have great hair, and there are fewer than 1,000 of them left in New Zealand!" wrote Mr Oliver's team of the bird's unique qualities on its voting page.

"The pūteketeke isn't just a bird cooler than any of us could ever hope to be — it's a bird that needs our help."

Mr Oliver, who holds British and US citizenship, later turned up on fellow comedian Jimmy Fallon's chat show dressed up as a pūteketeke.

John Oliver
Comedian John Oliver has waded into New Zealand-related issues in the past

The comedian has gone so far as to erect billboards in countries including New Zealand, Japan, France and the UK - dubbing the bird "Lord of the Wings" in reference to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy being filmed in New Zealand.

"This is what democracy is all about - America interfering in foreign elections," said Mr Oliver.

His involvement has certainly had an effect. The head of the environmental conservation organisation running the competition, known commonly as Forest and Bird, told New Zealand media agency Newshub that there had been an additional 50,000 votes less than 24 hours after Sunday's segment aired.

"Last year, the total votes for Bird of the Year was just under 52,000," said Nicola Toki, who added the surge in voting had put the team responsible for the website under a lot of pressure.

Ms Toki said Mr Oliver's involvement was not a surprise, as his team had been in touch earlier in the year.

The 46-year-old has a history of wading in on New Zealand issues, such as how to stop the country being left off world maps.

However, the eligibility of the pūteketeke, also known as the Australasian crested grebe, for candidacy in the competition is now being called into question by the campaign team due to the fact it is found in both New Zealand and Australia.

It has been accused of adding extra stars to the New Zealand flag and of calling flipflops "thongs" rather than "jandals" in reference to some of the well-known differences between the two countries.

Meanwhile, a conservationist who is backing another bird, the kākāriki karaka, has told Radio New Zealand in a tongue-in-cheek interview that Mr Oliver's support for the pūteketeke reminded him of previous election meddling in the US.

It is not the first time the competition has been mired in controversy. There was an outcry last year when the kākāpō, the world's fattest parrot, was banned from competing because it was the only bird to win twice in the past. That followed the shock of 2021 when the crown of Bird of the Year was given to... a bat.

Voting in this year's competition is due to close on Sunday.