Vanishing

V is for Vanishing Birds - Extinction is so final


from "The A - Z of Birds on Stamps" by P J Lanspeary

The Dodo was last seen alive in 1680 AD. Since then some 80 species of birds have become extinct. Today there are about 100 species in danger of joining them in oblivion. These are well represented on stamps, some of which have helped to publicise campaigns to save particular species. Most of the disappearances have been caused by destruction of their habitat by man. He cuts down forests, drains wetlands, pollutes rivers and covers the countryside with towns, roads and airports. Subsidiary causes are shooting, egg collecting and the spread of predatory domestic animals such as cats and dogs.

As in so many regions of the world, the main cause of decline in North American birds was deforestation. In 1600, that is before the arrival of the first colonists, the area of forest was has been estimated at 450 million acres. Today this has been reduced to about 20 million. One victim of this loss of forest is the large and spectacular Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This handsome. black, white and red bird is now almost certainly extinct in the USA. - the last sightings being reported from Louisiana in 1971. However, there is a tiny population in Cuba in mountains 500 miles east of Havana. This woodpecker has been featured several times on the stamps of Cuba, notably the express mail stamp of 1991.

The main cause of the decline of large birds like cranes is almost certainly indiscriminate shooting, especially when they are migrating. The rescue of the Whooping Crane from the brink of extinction is one of the success stories of wildlife conservation. A century ago about 1500 nested in Canada and the USA. Whoopers are migratory and each year many were shot on their journey between Canada and their wintering grounds around the Gulf of Mexico. By 1937 only 15 birds survived in one remnant flock. Now, due to protection measures at the breeding and wintering areas, numbers have increased considerably, assisted by a captive breeding programme. In 1955 Canada released a stamp for National Wildlife Week showing a pair of Whoopers in flight. In 1957 the USA. issued a stamp showing a pair with two young.

The Californian Condor is confined to a small area of foothills and mountains in southern California. The present population is very low, due mainly to shooting. There is a continuing programme to try to save them from extinction. One of a Wildlife Preservation set of four values issued by the USA in 1971 illustrates a Condor in flight. The artist has done well to suggest the great wing span of nine feet and the soaring flight.

The number of Dalmatian Pelicans in south-east Europe has declined in recent years. Once huge colonies of thousands stretching from the Balkans to Mongolia are now down to hundreds and the Danube population is now less than one hundred pairs. They have suffered from drainage, pollution of lakes, water sports and human persecution and colonies may have to be protected in reserves to survive. In 1967 and 1997 Albania brought out sets of five values and two values showing aspects of their lifestyle.

The majority of birds in greatest danger live on small islands where they are more vulnerable than those on large landmasses. In a small area there is no retreat from destruction of the forests or from predation by introduced cats, dogs and rats. One group of islands where several species are in danger is the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. One of these is the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher which is confined to the island of La Digue. The male is entirely metallic blue-black with two central tail feathers about 12 inches long. The female lacks the elongated tail and is quite different in colouring having only the head black with chestnut upper parts and cream under parts. These different colours are well shown in a miniature sheet issued by the Seychelles in 1996.

Mauritius, another island in the Indian Ocean, is the home of the very rare Mauritius Kestrel. One method of trying to save a rare species is to breed birds in captivity and to release them to the wild. This has been done with the Mauritius Kestrel with the help of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and the wild population has been slightly increased. This kestrel has appeared several times on the stamps of Mauritius, notably in the long, classic set of 1965 designed by the well-known bird artist D.M.Reid Henry. It can also be seen on a Jersey stamp of 1988.

Most of the West Indian parrots have suffered from forest clearance and are now very rare. Their status is not helped by the demands of dealers who will pay hundreds of pounds sterling for a young bird. The St. Lucia Amazon is the subject of a captive breeding programme supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Jersey Trust. It appears on stamps issued by St. Lucia for the WWF in 1987 and by Jersey in 1984.

The St. Vincent Amazon can probably be saved only by the establishment of a reserve on the island. It is well represented on the stamps of St. Vincent but perhaps best seen on a $6 miniature sheet brought out by St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1996.

Both these beautiful parrots are the only members of the family on their respective islands.

Another island bird in danger is Rothschild's Mynah, popularly known as the Bali Starling. Once common on Bali, a small population is now restricted to a narrow coastal strip within the Bali-Barat National Park. They are easy to breed in captivity and there are now more in aviaries than in the wild. Portraits can be seen on stamps from Indonesia in 1996 and Jersey in 1972.

The Fiji group of islands in the South Pacific is home to several rare birds, two of which, the Long-legged Warbler and Pink-billed Parrot Finch, appear on stamps issued by Fiji in 1979. The Warbler was thought to have been extinct as long ago as 1894 but was seen again in 1967, 1973 and 1974. The Parrot Finch is found only on the island of Viti Levu. The future of both species probably depends on sufficient scrub and forest being preserved.

The magnificent Philippine Eagle is one of the most threatened birds of prey in the world. At one time there were at least 2,000 in the Philippines but now numbers have dropped to about 200. Continuous deforestation, shooting and illegal trapping are the main causes of its decline. It is now fully protected by law and its capture for zoos is strictly controlled. The eagle appears several times on Philippine stamps, one of the more acceptable portraits being a miniature sheet issued in 1994 and inscribed Aseanpex ' 94.

The Kagu is a small, heron-like bird restricted to the South Pacific island of New Caledonia. It is flightless, but can glide downhill on rounded wings. Once widespread on New Caledonia, it has suffered from introduced dogs, cats, rats and pigs until now only a few hundred remain in the least accessible mountain forests. For over 100 years the Kagu, the national bird, has appeared regularly on the stamps of New Caledonia. Various designs have been used, some stylised like the early definitives and some life-like. Four values issued in 1998 illustrate birds in natural poses while the latest definitives show stylised heads.

New Zealand has its share of rare birds including the Takahe, a flightless member of the Rail family, which was thought to have been extinct for 50 years. But, in 1984, amid much excitement in ornithological circles, a few pairs were discovered in a remote valley in South Island. Competition for food from introduced deer and predation by stoats were suspected to have been the major factors in their decline. Improved deer control, resulting in more vegetation, and a captive breeding programme have brought about an increase in numbers. the Takahe appeared on stamps issued by New Zealand in 1956 and 1988, the latter being a portrait by Janet Marshall, the well known New Zealand bird artist.

New Zealand is the home of the world's only flightless parrot, the Kakapo. Unlike most parrots which are noisy, diurnal and arboreal, the Kakapo is quiet, nocturnal and ground dwelling. When Europeans first arrived in New Zealand with their cats, dogs and rats the Kakapo population declined rapidly. Today it is one of New Zealand's most endangered species. Janet Marshall's true-to-life painting of the Kakapo was featured on a stamp in 1986.

Penguins are usually thought of in terms of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, so it comes as a surprise to find one on the danger list, the Yellow-eyed Penguin, which is restricted to a few islands in New Zealand. Most penguins nest in huge colonies but the Yellow-eyed breeds in small, scattered groups. Land clearance for human settlement has destroyed much of its habitat, especially on South Island, and introduced predators such as cats, rats and ferrets have taken a steady toll. The outlook is poor as a number of small breeding colonies have already been deserted. Much will depend on protection and management of their remaining nesting sites. The Yellow-eyed Penguin has appeared three times on New Zealand stamps in 1993 (a composite design showing endangered species), 1995 and 2001.

From this small selection of stamps it can be seen that birds in danger of extinction occur in all regions of the world. For any species to die out is a tragedy - extinction is so final. The dangers are recognised and many organisations are devoted to bird preservation. Without it, we shall lose forever the beautiful and distinctive birds referred to in this article. The publicity given by the sort of stamps in this article may help to bring about a climate of opinion sympathetic to conservation programmes.

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