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Birds on Stamps

by Malcolm Ogilvie

Stamp-collecting is one of those hobbies that is an obsession for some while leaving others completely bemused that anyone could become interested. A bit like bird-watching really! There are those, though, who combine the two pursuits to become ornithophilatelists, using their knowledge of birds to further their interest in stamp-collecting, and vice versa, by concentrating on stamps which illustrate birds.

Stanley Gibbons, the British firm synonymous with stamps world-wide, not just in Britain, recognised the interest in the combined hobby in 1983 by issuing their first-ever thematic stamp catalogue, 'Collect Birds on Stamps'. The fifth edition of this work is currently in preparation and is likely to be perhaps 20% larger than the 4th edition which, published in 1994, included more than 12,500 stamps illustrating 2,400 different species, issued by no less than 350 countries or stamp-issuing authorities.

Among the earliest bird stamps issued were three by Japan in 1875. Unfortunately, the illustrations are somewhat stylised, but are probably a Bean Goose, a Pied Wagtail and a Goshawk. The following year Colombia issued a stamp with a very recognisable Andean Condor, while Guatemala followed in 1879 with a Resplendent Quetzal.

Many countries started producing bird stamps in the 1920s and 1930s, but Britain didn't issue any until 1963, although some of its colonies had done so earlier, for example Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika issued a set in 1935 showing the head of King George V flanked by two Crowned Cranes, while in the same year the authorities in the Cayman Islands chose to place a Red-footed Booby alongside the same image of their monarch!

Britain's first bird stamp celebrated 'Nature Week' in May 1963 with a Long-tailed Tit, a Wood Lark and a Great Spotted Woodpecker, together with a Badger and a Roe Deer fawn and some flowers, all on the same stamp. Three years later came a set with showing Black-headed Gull, Blue Tit, Robin and Blackbird. Bird stamps have appeared with some regularity since, the last being in January 2000 when a stamp was issued showing, to everyone's surprise, a colony of Cape Gannets. On being questioned, a Post Office spokesperson said that they were meant to be "symbolic" seabirds, but couldn't then explain why there were "symbolic" seabirds on a stamp that had been issued specifically to celebrate the Seabird Centre at North Berwick, with its direct camera link to the nearby Bass Rock's colony of decidedly Northern Gannets!

Several countries, not least various Pacific islands, have jumped on the band wagon of "collectable" stamps in recent years, seeing them as a useful form of income. Stanley Gibbons are strict about distinguishing between genuine stamps issued for the postal services and those which, as they state, have been issued in excess of postal needs or, in some cases, have never been used for the country's postal service at all. Whether a collector bothers with these is entirely up to them, of course. A bit like whether or not to add a possible, or even obvious, escaped bird to one's life list, I guess. However, without such stamps, many of them showing fine paintings, beautifully reproduced, who would have any idea of the whereabouts, or even the existence, of places such as Ajman, Aitutaki, Penrhyn Island (no, it isn't in Wales), Palau, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Stamp-collecting, like bird-watching, can be considered mind broadening.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.