When is a bat not a bat? When it’s New Zealand’s Bird of the Year, apparently. This year, the competition saw a contentious entry as the long-tailed bat, pekapeka-tou-roa (Chalinolobus tuberculatus), joined the roster of hopeful contenders. While some categorized its inclusion an “outrage”, others were firmly behind #TeamBat. Against the odds, and despite not being a bird, the pekapeka-tou-roa soared to victory becoming the “Bird” of the Year 2021.
The pekapeka is one of just two land mammals native to New Zealand, both of which are bats, and is one of the rarest mammals in the world. Human activity has since introduced non-native mammal species to the country such as rats, possums, and ferrets, all of which represent a big threat to New Zealand’s ground-nesting birds.
What it lacks in avian heritage the pekapeka makes up for in its plight, as it’s critically endangered like many of New Zealand’s native winged species. There are now so few left that experts don’t even have an estimate for their population size, but with habitat loss and introduced predators posing a significant threat to the species, it’s about time the pekapeka-tou-roa got some international press.
“This is the first time New Zealand’s only land mammal has been included in Bird of the Year, and it has flown away with the title,” reads New Zealand's Te Manu Rongonui o Te Tau, Bird of the Year website. “These flying furballs are threatened by the same problems as our native birds - predators, habitat loss and climate change. The more we do to protect them, the more it helps their feathered friends, and vice versa.”
The Bird of the Year website lists contenders with their current statuses, which include “doing ok”, “in some trouble” and “in serious trouble”. The pekapeka sits in the latter category alongside some of New Zealand’s most charismatic species such as the great spotted kiwi, kākāpō, and rockhopper penguin.
In the pekapeka’s run for Bird of the Year, campaign manager Peter Wills delivered a rousing speech in which he described the bat as this year’s “underbird” and put forward his reasons for a mammal taking the 2021 bird title.
“Pekapeka are more bird-like than wannabirds in this competition,” read Wills’ statement. “Saying this may ruffle some feathers but can any of our flagship species fly? Pekapeka are deservedly manu. In New Zealand we believe in the underbird. We believe in the little fly. We believe that where you come from doesn't have to determine your future. Pekapeka-tou-roa, it's your time to rise up and grow our understanding of manu. Koia nei te houanga o pekapeka-tou-roa!”
Can’t argue with that!