Red-tailed Hawk Name


February 21, 2011        

Stuffing the ballot is a time-honored tradition in some U.S. cities and many third-world countries, but the Wildlife Center of Virginia never expected their online contest to name a bird to be the target of a high-tech attempt to steal the election!!  But, that is just what happened last week, when a hacker[s] targeted the Wildlife Center’s public poll.

The Wildlife Center is known primarily as an emergency room that provides medical care of injured and ill wildlife. We are also proud that we reach tens of thousands of schoolchildren and adults throughout Virginia each year with our popular environmental outreach programs. Full “partners” in these programs and presentations are some 20 birds, mammals and reptiles that were treated at the Center but, for a variety of reasons, are unable to be released back to the wild. These animals – from owls to opossums to turtles to hawks – are amazing ambassadors who give Virginians a rare and wonderful up-close look at the wild.

Last month, the Wildlife Center asked the public to help name our newest environmental ambassador – a Red-tailed Hawk. This beautiful raptor was hit by a car in Dayton, VA, in February 2010; because of the severity of her injuries, she cannot be returned to the wild. In her new “career”, this magnificent bird will travel with Center staff to schools, libraries, and other public events and help share the steps that each of us can take to protect wildlife and the environment. 

Last month, we asked local elementary schools to suggest a name for this hawk. Ultimately, 174 names were submitted from 21 local schools. The field was ultimately winnowed down to the “final five”:

Cherry Tail:  suggested by 3rd grade student Samantha Glick at McSwain Elementary in Staunton. Explanation:  A cherry on the stem reminded me of the hawk’s one eye. That’s what made me think of Cherry Tail.

Phoenix:  suggested by Ms. Fulk’s 4th grade class at Peak View Elementary in Penn Laird. Explanation:  We thought of Harry Potter and Professor Dumbledore’s pet bird that rose from the ashes and saves people in need.

Poppy:  suggested by 4th grade student Andrew Winfield at Stuarts Draft Elementary. Explanation:  Because poppies are red and she is a red-tailed hawk.

Ruby:  suggested by Ms. Phelps’ 1st grade class at South River Elementary. Explanation: We are currently studying Ruby Bridges [in 1960, six-year-old Ruby was the first African-American child to desegregate and attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans] . The kids thought since Ruby was a brave girl who fought to have a better life and since rubies are red, this would be a good name for a female red-tailed-hawk who also fought for her life.

Twizzler:  suggested by 4th grade student Vinny Leo at Hugh K. Cassell Elementary in Waynesboro. Explanation:  Vinny’s idea is that Twizzlers are red, like the Hawk’s tail.

For last part of this process, we turned to the general public to help us make our final selection. Using an online polling service, QuizSnack, we created an online ballot and asked our friends and supporters to share their opinions.   As structured by QuizSnack, voting was supposed to be limited to one vote per person. The “polls” opened on February 2. The ensuing electoral frenzy was spirited and enthusiastic. Thousands of children and adults learned about our hawk and cast their votes. Campaigns were launched in favor of one name or another; information was posted on a variety of websites and Facebook pages … and a good-natured contest was underway. 

While nearly all of the participants adhered to the voting procedures in this light-hearted battle, some people were apparently unable, or unwilling, to play by the rules. During the course of the voting, Center staff began to notice certain blatant voting irregularities – for example, unusually large numbers of votes being cast for the same contender in the middle of the night. For this reason, voting was suspended early on the morning of February 19. Center staff reviewed the votes and identified suspicious voting activity from three different Internet Service Provider addresses – two foreign and one domestic. In each case, hundreds or thousands of votes were cast, in rapid succession, for the same targeted names. This kind of cheating is often known as “robo-voting” – where a computer program is written to outsmart a security program and then votes automatically, over and over, for hours at a time.       

In the most egregious example, a single overseas ISP generated more than 5,000 votes for “Phoenix”.  During the six-hour period between midnight and 6:00 a.m. on February 19, for instance, QuizSnack recorded 3,201 votes from this single source for Phoenix.   

Other suspicious “bulk” votes for other candidates have also been identified. The purpose of the Center’s online contest was to seek the public’s views on the suggested names, especially from children, not to test computer hacking skills or the ability to rig an election. It’s unfortunate that someone takes pleasure from hacking into, and attempting to spoil, a contest in which so many schoolchildren and others have enjoyed participating. Fortunately, since we were monitoring the process closely, we were able to identify the illegal votes and distinguish between them and the honest votes that were cast. Once the bogus ballots were excluded, the results of the voting show that a clear winner emerges.  

Ruby                      35.3 percent                
Twizzler                25.6 percent                
Poppy                   17.4 percent                
Phoenix               15.3 percent                
Cherry Tail           6.5 percent

I am very pleased to announce that the Wildlife Center of Virginia’s new Red-tailed Hawk will be called Ruby!  Ruby, the Red-tail.

We extend our hearty congratulations to the students in Ms. Phelps’ first-grade class at South River Elementary. Ruby will be making a special visit to their classroom very soon! The Wildlife Center is most grateful for the participation of local students and teachers and the more than 4,000 individuals who voted. And our appreciation is not diminished because a couple of people sought to cheat and spoil the contest.  

Ruby is now available for adoption through the Wildlife Center’s Caring for Critters program. Please help support this bird … and the Center’s work to help wild animals in need.