Mail a letter, help an endangered bird. Since 1993, the United Nations postal agency releases an annual collection of endangered species stamps to bring attention to the plight of rare animals and plants. This year’s dozen stamps, which come out today, will highlight arguably some of the most spectacular creatures of all: birds-of-paradise.
Birds-of-paradise are popularly known for the male’s elaborate dances, shape-shifting poses, loud calls, and brilliant plumages. Seeing one perform a courtship display is an unforgettable experience. The about 40 bird-of-paradise species all live around New Guinea, and many of them are threatened or endangered.
“They’re small birds,” says Sergio Baradat, art director at the UN Postal Administration. “But what they lack in size they more than make up for in spectacular pageantry.”
Officials from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an anti-wildlife trafficking treaty, help the UN to decide which species to profile. This year’s birds-of-paradise proposal was well received by both Baradat and Rorie Katz, creative director for the UN Postal Administration. Together, they make up the UN Postal Administration’s entire design team.
Normally, Baradat and Katz would hire illustrators to create the species artwork. But this year, Katz turned to the work of Richard Bowdler Sharpe, a late British ornithologist who published a groundbreaking two-volume collection of bird-of-paradise lithographs in the 1890s. Katz obtained permission to use Sharpe’s prints from the University of Manchester Library in England.
“How can you do better?,” she says. “They’re just so gorgeous.”
This Superb Bird-of-Paradise made a particular impression on them. Baradat compared it to a dancing black-and-blue umbrella.
“These are little pieces of art that travel the world, ” says Katz
Generally, there is a theme to the stamps: Last year it was endangered marine life and in 2013, stamps featured endangered nocturnal creatures (with glow-in-the-dark eyes). While all revenue goes to the UN, the stamps are intended to raise awareness for endangered species “The United Nations, through many of its subsidiary bodies, has made protection of the environment a priority,” the UN’s stamp website states. “The current Endangered Species stamp series, with its beautiful illustrations of 12 endangered species each year, calls attention to this plight.”
Each of the four bird-of-paradise American stamps cost $1.20, the same price as an international stamp from the U.S. Postal Service (there are four bird stamps marked in Swiss francs, and four more in euros). The UN’s stamps are most popular among collectors—to actually send a letter using one, it must be posted from UN offices in New York, Geneva, or Vienna.
The easiest way to purchase them is online at unstamps.org. They’re also on sale at the American Stamp Dealers Association stamp show in New York, where they will be officially unveiled today, April 16.
“We have very, very enthusiastic and dedicated collectors who really do line up to collect their stamps,” says Baradat, a stamp collector himself.
It turns out that wildlife sells: the UN’s endangered species stamps are by far the most popular stamps that the organization offers.