Postage stamps aren't just for sending love letters; they're love letters in themselves—unique, commemorative works of art that embody history, nature, and national identities. So what happens when you add birds to the mix? Well, as evidenced by World Stamp Show, which comes to New York City this weekend, you end up with an array of beautiful, thumb-sized portraits of tanagers, eagles, owls and waterfowl, worth anywhere from 20 cents to $20 million.

The culture of making and caching stamps dates back to the 1840s, when British postal administrator Rowland Hill inspired a new artistic medium and obsession with the help of a single adhesive label: the “Penny Black” stamp, portraying Queen Victoria. With the birth of the first stamp came the rise of the first philatelists, otherwise known as stamp collectors.

While some philatelists strive for quantity, others are more niche in their cravings. Thematic collecting has gained popularity over the last 30 years, and is often used to tell a story about the items, especially in competitive exhibiting. These hobbyists focus on tracking down a certain breed of stamps—or even a particular kind of bird: extinct birds, songbirds, endangered birds, or whatever avian theme strikes their fancy. And with more than 35,000 related designs in the world, there are plenty pick and choose from.

The Comoro Islands in Africa honored John James Audubon and John Gould in a series of stamps called "Ornithologists and Birds." Courtesy of World Stamp Show

It's not just the beasts that get all the glory either: Famed naturalist John James Audubon has been immortalized by the postal service, along with his portraits of the Collie’s Magpie-Jay and Louisiana Tanager. See the two designs, along with John Lennon's childhood stamp album and the world's most-valuable stamp in person at the show. The exhibition—held once every 10 years—is free, and will run at the Javit's Center from May 28 to June 4.

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