An illustration of the New Zealand long-tailed bat, which is critically endangered and not a bird. Illustration: Wikimedia Commons
New Zealanders are up in arms over a bat’s inclusion in this year’s Bird of the Year competition, a contest that ostensibly exists to crown a bird. Alas, it seems a bat has stolen the hearts of locals this time around.
Bats are not birds. Bats are flying mammals, as should be clear from their furriness and lack of beaks. But that hasn’t stopped the long-tailed bat of New Zealand (known locally as the pekapeka-tou-roa) from sneaking its way into this year’s contest, jeopardizing the chances of such charismatic fauna as the takahē and kiwi, not to mention the kākāpō, last year’s winner, a flightless parrot that is known for being bright green, chonky, and bad at sex. There are 76 hopefuls in the 2021 contest, and the bat is the first mammal to ever be included.
To be fair to the bat, it is very cute and deserving of recognition. Long-tailed bats are thumb-sized, with wingspans as wide as a human hand, and weigh less than a tablespoon of sugar. They can fly at speeds up to 40 miles per hour and prefer to roost in very old trees, but deforestation has stripped the flying mammals of much of their habitat, and many are picked off by invasive predators such as cats, rats, possums, and stoats. The bats are critically endangered.
The bat is winning “by quite a lot,” according to Laura Keown, a spokesperson for Forest and Bird, the leading independent conservation organization of New Zealand and the organizer of the competition. Keown told the Guardian that “it’s not a foregone conclusion, anything can happen. But definitely looking at the results, the bat is the frontrunner. It’s streaking ahead.” Some on Twitter were favorable to the inclusion, while others were adamant that “Bats. Aren’t. Birds.” Still others felt like the decision was the start of a slippery slope.
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It’s not the first time the contest has flirted with controversy. Last year, Forest and Bird reported that 1,500 fraudulent votes were cast for one bird: the little-spotted kiwi (kiwi pukupuku). In this case, though, the bat’s entry was permitted by Forest and Bird. A spokesperson told the Guardian that the animal was allowed in as it is critically endangered and needs more attention.
Perhaps surprisingly, bats are the only mammals native to New Zealand that aren’t semi- or totally aquatic. “Since ‘mammal of the year’ was going to be a very boring competition we kind of decided to throw the bat among the pigeons and ruffle some feathers,” Keown told HuffPost.
It may seem unfair for the organization supervising an election to imply a certain amount of support for one candidate, especially a candidate who doesn’t seem to meet the qualification criteria. But perhaps procedural objections fall flat in the face of a moral obligation to raise awareness around a critically endangered species. If you’d like to weigh in, voting is open through October 31.
Update 11/2/2021: The bat won.