“The competition is open to anyone — people from Britain or Australia or Russia [who] want to get in on the action; they’re more than welcome to,” Hubscher added.
According to the organizers, 335 Russian voters attempted to enter the competition. However, this appeared to have been a small fraction of the total vote: There were more than 16,000 votes from New Zealand, as well as 684 from Australia, 682 from Britain and 563 from the United States.
In order for their votes to be counted toward the final results, voters also needed to register an email address. Only 193 voters from Russia did so.
Speculation about Russian interference appears to have been sparked by a tongue-in-cheek tweet from Forest and Bird, which in turn prompted equally tongue-in-cheek calls for a special counsel to investigate.
Most notable has been the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But there have also been seemingly lower-stakes interventions: Last year, for example, there appeared to have been a coordinated Russian push to distort the debate about who is the longest-living person ever documented.
Hubscher told Radio New Zealand that any Russian interest in the contest may have been sincere.
“I’ve been pointing out to people we do share birds with Russia — a lot of New Zealand’s birds are migratory,” she said, pointing to the bar-tailed godwit, a 2015 Bird of the Year, which makes annual round trips between New Zealand and eastern Russia.
The Bird of the Year contest has been held since 2005, and it has attracted attempts at interference in the past. Last year, a number of fraudulent votes for the shag bird were traced back to Australia. The event is taken so seriously that supporters of different birds take out billboard advertisements.
The kea and rockhopper teams have been taking their campaigns to the skies this week. Check out these massive billboards around Auckland and Wellington. #BirdOfTheYearPosted by Forest & Bird on Saturday, November 2, 2019
The vote is designed to raise awareness of native birds in New Zealand. This year’s winner, the hoiho, is the first penguin to win. It is considered an antisocial bird known for its high-pitched scream. And it is endangered: Only 225 pairs are left on mainland New Zealand, according to Forest and Bird.