As another Bird of the Year draws to a close, Kimberley Collins reflects on why this kind of fun and uplifting advocacy is an important way to get New Zealanders to take an interest in conservation.
Every year, thousands of New Zealanders flock to the polls to vote for their favourite bird. Well-known and enthusiastic “campaign managers” hit the streets (and social media) to advocate for their chosen bird encouraging thousands of people to get involved.
This year’s competition was a huge success. We had a record-breaking number of votes, some very strange campaign tactics (like birds using the dating app Tinder), and even celebrity endorsements from Bill Bailey and Stephen Fry.
There was not one, but two attempted hacking scandals where Australians made over 300 votes for the shag, and over 1500 for the kakī using disposable emails. Thankfully, they were quickly shut down by Bird of the Year “scrutineers” at Dragonfly Data Science.
Each year, we get plenty of mentions and messages from people overseas who are either very confused or very amazed that New Zealand has a popularity competition for its native birds. Australia even loved it so much in 2017 that they ran their own Bird of the Year with the magpie taking out first place.
But whether you love Bird of the Year or hate it, our native birds get a lot out of this silly competition.
A silly competition with a serious message
Bird of the Year may be fun, but it comes with a much more serious message — that our native birds are in a bad way. A recent report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found that four out of five native bird species are in trouble, while one in three are at risk of becoming extinct.
Of the 168 native or endemic species included, just 20 per cent are listed as “doing ok” while 48 per cent are “in some trouble” and 32 per cent are “in serious trouble”.
The Department of Conservation’s report shows a similar trend with 65 per cent of birds listed as either “threatened” or “at risk”. Then there are the 59 bird species that have already gone extinct.
New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis
Sadly, our birds aren’t the only creatures suffering. New Zealand holds the unfortunate title of having the highest rate of threatened species in the world. We have nearly 4,000 species that are either “threatened” or “at risk”. That includes 80% of our bats, 75% of our freshwater fish, and 82% of our reptiles.
Introduced predators are a big cause of this decline. Stoats, possums, and rats covered 94% of our total land area in 2014. Each year, they kill over 25 million native birds. It’s devastating, yet that number doesn’t even include their impact on other species like plants, lizards, invertebrates, and bats. Hedgehogs, for example, consume large numbers of invertebrates, as well as skinks and geckos. One report found a single hedgehog dropping contained 10 skink feet, while another had 283 wētā legs in its stomach.
Then there’s habitat loss from property development, pollution, and agriculture which compounds the challenges these native species are faced with.
Climate change will only make things worse for our natives. As temperatures increase, we are already seeing more extreme weather events that wipe out otherwise strong breeding populations. Disease will be transferred more easily. Alpine habitats will shrink and, as sea levels rise, so will coastal habitats. All in all, our native plants and animals are being left with fewer and fewer places to call home.
As conservationists, we face the mammoth task of turning around what is now being called our biodiversity crisis. But if we’re going to see change, we need to bring New Zealand with us – and that’s where things get hard…
Biodiversity has a PR problem
Those of us who are already interested in conservation know what a dire situation we face. But step outside the “conservation bubble” and you may be surprised to learn that many New Zealanders think our environment is doing ok.
The most recent results of a bi-annual study from Lincoln University on how New Zealanders perceive the environment found that 73% think our environment is in a “good to adequate” state. When it comes to what we think of native plants and animals that live on land or in our freshwater ecosystems, 70% of people think they are doing alright.
The biggest challenge we face as conservation communicators is that no one realises our native species are at risk. Perhaps everyone thinks things are fine because we’ve had 10 years of “100% Pure New Zealand” branding and what felt like constant media coverage of politicians releasing kiwi.
Perhaps it’s that we just have too many other things to worry about. Or that we focus on immediate problems. Or that we’re disconnected from our environment. Or that these species aren’t close to where we live so the situation is out of sight and out of mind. I could go on, but you get the point.
Regardless of the cause, we have a serious problem. How can we save our native species if people don’t realise anything is wrong?
Getting a foot in the door
The most common complaint I have heard in my four years of running Bird of the Year is that it fuels New Zealand’s obsession with birds while other, less charismatic, species suffer.
It’s very true that New Zealanders engage (almost fanatically) with birds. We see them when we are out in the bush, at the beach, or out in the boat. Some of us are even lucky enough to have them visiting our backyards.
Bird of the Year is about leveraging New Zealand’s obsession with birds so we can introduce them to wider conservation issues (with the end goal of getting them to take action). But once we get their foot in the door, how can we get them to take an interest in what they think are ugly animals or boring issues?
I think the answer is storytelling. We need to tell stories about conservation that people can relate to emotionally. Bird of the Year brings out our competitive nature and makes us proud to support a particular bird.
But we also played on emotion in 2017 when we added the conservation status for each bird to the website. It was (and still is) a grim sight with orange and red buttons reading “in some trouble” and “in serious trouble” dominating the page. Many people shared their shock on social media, saying they didn’t realise how many of our native birds were threatened. Job done!
So how can we use this same approach to reach “everyday New Zealanders”?
Bursting the conservation bubble
As with any good communication strategy, we conservationists and communicators need to think about three things — who do we want to reach, where are we going to reach them, and how are we going to pique their interest?
I often use the example of my dad. He heads to work at 6am every morning and comes home at 5pm. Then he has to move cattle, feed the chickens, help with dinner, and so on. When it’s finally time to relax, he’ll grab a beer and sit down to watch the news. He might check Facebook every now and then to see what his friends and family are up to.
So my question is — at what point are you going to reach him with a conservation story? And when he sees that conservation story, what about it is going to make him take an interest?