Evidence of election rigging has roiled New Zealand's "Bird of the Year" competition after a case of ballot-box stuffing has threatened to derail avian democracy.
Suspicion began when organizers received more than 1,500 votes sent from the same email address early Monday — each vote was in favor of the little spotted kiwi (kiwi pukupuku), according to a statement from Forest & Bird, a conservation organization that runs the election.
"That is an amazing bird – it deserves all the support, but unfortunately these votes had to be disallowed and they've been taken out of the competition," Forest & Bird spokeswoman Laura Keown told NPR's Weekend Edition.
The annual event is more than just a bird popularity contest. The conservation group Forest & Bird runs the election-based competition to help raise awareness about New Zealand's native bird species, many of which are endangered.
"I can only assume that people get really excited about New Zealand's native birds," she said, reasoning why someone would want to cheat. "We are a land of birds, and we have some of the most amazing and unique species."
The race isn't over yet — voting closes Sunday — but Keown said the disqualification immediately lifted one species, legitimately, to top billing: the Kakapo, a rare nocturnal bird known for its owlish beak and yellow-green coloring and the only flightless parrot in the world. As of Friday, the Antipodean albatross, a critically endangered seabird, had swooped to the top of the leader board.
As we go into the final weekend of voting for #BirdoftheYear 2020, here's the current rankings. It's going to be a close one this year folks!— Forest & Bird (@Forest_and_Bird) November 12, 2020
You have till 5pm on Sunday 15 Nov to make your vote. Head along to https://t.co/cjN6uY9V8y and pick your top five. pic.twitter.com/skF3bkUH0U
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, however, threw her support behind the black petrel again this year, Keown reported.
The hihi, also known as the stitchbird, earned an official endorsement from a sex toy retailer. The Adult Toy Megastore extolled the polyamorous bird, which boasts unusually large testicles and engages in face-to-face mating, as a leader "of the sex positivity movement among songbirds."
In an honorable move, the 2019 winner, the yellow-eyed penguin, has decided to sit out this year's competition to let his winged counterparts shine.
Despite the alleged fraud, the littlest kiwi still has a shot at the crown if it picks up enough votes. After all, the underdog species once made a stunning comeback from mainland extinction.
"If you really love the kiwi pukupuku, get out and campaign for them in Bird of the Year. We don't want to see any more cheating," the bird's campaign manager Emma Rawson said in the press release earlier this week. "As [New Zealand's] national emblem, little-spotted kiwi represents New Zealanders' values of democracy, fairness, equality, and honesty."
NPR's Peter Breslow and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited this story for broadcast.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A disputed campaign, election fraud, stuffing ballot boxes - of course, we're talking about the vote for New Zealand's 2020 Bird of the Year. The voting ends tomorrow, but there has been chicanery, surprises and a coveted endorsement from a sex toy shop. Is there anything else we could say to get you interested?
Joining us now from Nelson, New Zealand, is Laura Keown, who's spokesperson for Bird of the Year - happens to be originally from Oregon, so don't be disappointed if she sounds that way. Thanks so much for being with us.
LAURA KEOWN: Yeah, it's my pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: And we should point out this contest has a very serious purpose, doesn't it?
KEOWN: Absolutely. Bird of the Year is run by Forest & Bird, which is New Zealand's oldest independent conservation organization. And it's really our way of promoting native birds. The more that we know about our native species and how in trouble they are, then the more people will want to protect them and support our conservation efforts into the future.
SIMON: Well, tell us now about the chicanery, the charges of fraud, what's been going on. For example, votes for the little spotted kiwi raised an alarm, I gather.
KEOWN: We got a little over 1,500 fraudulent votes all flooding in from the same email address in the middle of the night, and they were all for the little spotted kiwi, our smallest kiwi species. So that is an amazing bird. It deserves all of the support. But unfortunately, these votes had to be disallowed, and they've been taken out of the competition. So we've had little scandals like this in the past, so...
SIMON: Yeah, for the - is it the kakapo, I believe?
KEOWN: The kakapo. I don't think they've been subject to a voting scandal yet. That is an amazing forest bird, a parrot that is nocturnal and flightless, the only one in the world that behaves that way. But they seem to be legitimately at the top of the leaderboard this year. They're a high-performing species, an extremely popular bird.
SIMON: I got to admit I am a little touched by the fact that so many people would care so deeply about Bird of the Year they'd want to cheat. Why is that?
KEOWN: Well, I can only assume that people just get really excited about New Zealand's native birds. We are a land of birds, and we have some of the most amazing and unique species. We have the largest rail species of flightless bird called the takahe, which, you know, wanders around in our swamps. And there's the smallest penguin in the world, the korora, the little blue penguin. You know, we have so many incredible species.
SIMON: So I gather that the hihi has gotten some high-profile support.
KEOWN: Yeah. So the hihi, or stitchbird, was endorsed by, well, the Adult Toy Megastore, an online sex shop in el Te Aro (ph), New Zealand. So I must say Forest & Bird blushed a little when this came through, but they were quite interested in highlighting the sex lives of birds. And the hihi is particularly unique. Most forest birds will pair and raise their chicks together, but hihi likes to mate with as many different birds as it can. And as a result of this breeding strategy, it has enormous testicles, the biggest testicles for any bird of its size, so...
SIMON: You know, I think you - I don't think there's any need to say, so. I just think you leave that statement there, as I will. And what about the reports I've heard that last year's winner, the yellow-eyed penguin, is refusing to concede defeat and step down? Have you heard that?
KEOWN: (Laughter) So I can confirm that this is completely fake news because the hoiho very humbly, very early in the Bird of the Year competition actually decided not to contest for another Bird of the Year championship. So hoiho has actually thrown its considerable weight behind the other penguins in the penguin party, like the korora and the Fiordland crested penguin and the rockhopper penguin. So they're definitely not set to take the crown again. They've instead decided to help their friends.
SIMON: Laura Keown is a spokesperson for Bird of the Year. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
KEOWN: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.