Extinct Birds

When New Zealand broke away from the great southern supercontinent Gondwanaland some 80 million years ago, birds were abundant. But snakes and land mammals, apart from bats, were absent. It was paradise for the original birds and others that flew or floated here later.

Issue information

The same qualities that have made many New Zealand birds distinct from others around the world have also helped to make them extinct. Flightlessness and bulk, along with tens of thousands of years living in a predator-free environment, left many bird species vulnerable when they began sharing the islands with humans and introduced predators.

The tally of New Zealand's extinct bird species is close to 60, only about one quarter of them having disappeared before the arrival of humans. It was the coming of the Polynesians, about 1,000 years ago, and the floods of European settlers last century that doomed so many species. A combination of factors - destruction of habitat, introduction of predators, hunting and disease - wiped out species. Māori colonisers brought the native rat and a domestic dog with them. Europeans introduced more potent killers in the form of ship rats, cats, ferrets, stoats and weasels. Māori destroyed habitat by clearing land, and European settlers accelerated the process as they drained swamps and burned forest to establish farms. Many New Zealand birds, especially the flightless ground-dwellers, could not combat these new enemies owing to an inability to adapt to changing ecological circumstances.

Today, a number of unique New Zealand bird species are still threatened with extinction. Only devoted care, transfer to predator-free islands and captive breeding programmes may save them from the fate of so many other species that once graced New Zealand.

A Unique Feature

A feature that made this stamp issue unique was that all six sheet stamps were printed with the name and a brief description of each bird on the reverse (gummed) side of each stamp. This was the first occasion that text had appeared on the reverse side of New Zealand stamps since advertising messages were printed on the back of the 1893 stamps issued as part of the Queen Victoria Second Sidefaces (first issued 1882) issue. The self-adhesive booklet stamp was printed by Australia Post-Sprintpak, while the remaining stamps of the issue were printed by Southern Colour Print.

Miniature Sheet

The miniature sheet incorporated the $1.80 Giant Moa (Dinornis giganteus) stamp.

Presentation Pack

The attractive presentation pack for the Extinct Birds issue was specially written for New Zealand Post by Dr Brian Gill of the Auckland Museum, an expert on New Zealand birds and author of several books on the subject. It contained interesting and detailed information about the birds of this issue.

Product Listing for Extinct Birds

Click on image to enlarge.

Image Title Description Price
Single Stamp

Single 40c 'Adzebill (Aptornis otidiformis)' gummed stamp.

This powerful, turkey-sized flightless bird was extinct before the arrival of Europeans 200 years ago but sub-fossil bones of the species have been found in many Māori kitchen middens. With its huge beak, immense neck muscles and strong feet, it seems as if it was superbly adapted for digging, but no one knows the reason for this adaptation. Did it smash open logs searching for grubs and insects, break into the burrows of seabirds and tuatara and eat them, or feed on roots and tubers? It fell victim to humans, dogs and rats once the Māori reached New Zealand about 1,000 years ago.

$0.40
Single Stamp

Single 80c 'Laughing owl (Sceloglaux albifacies)' gummed stamp.

Once common throughout New Zealand, this owl made its last stand in the sub-alpine areas of the South Island's Southern Alps, where the final recorded sighting, a dead bird, was made in 1914. About twice the size of the morepork which hoots from the bush today, the laughing owl fed on large insects, small birds, lizards and bats and was also known to prey on rats and mice. With unusually long, powerful legs, it was apparently more adapted to hunting on the ground than most other owls.

$0.80
Single Stamp

Single $1.00 'Piopio (Turnagra capensis)' gummed stamp.

When Europeans first arrived they named this bird the New Zealand thrush because of its resemblance to the thrushes of Europe. But the two are not closely related and the New Zealand bird is now considered to be a primitive relative of the bower birds and birds-of-paradise of Australia and New Guinea. In the early 1800's the piopio was widespread and common, especially in the South Island. But as introduced predators spread, the numbers of the tame, ground-feeding piopio declined dramatically and the last confirmed sightings were recorded about 1900.

$1.00
Single Stamp

Single $1.20 'Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris)' gummed stamp.

No other extinct bird has such a place in the affections of New Zealanders as the Huia. Books and poems have been written about it. Large and beautiful with orange wattles, the Huia was the only bird in the world whose male and female had radically different shaped beaks. The male's was short and straight, the female's long and curved. Internationally admired, the Huia was wiped out in the early years of the twentieth century, plundered for its feathers and for museum collections. The last reliable sighting occurred in December 1907. It seems as if the bird might have survived beyond that date but later sightings, one as recently as 1961, have never been verified.

$1.20
Single Stamp

Single $1.50 'Giant eagle (Harpagornis moorei)' gummed stamp.

What a sight this bird must have made - the largest eagle ever known; a wingspan of up to three metres and immense talons. Brian Gill says the youngest bones of this eagle, found in the South Island and lower half of the North Island may be only 500 years old, indicating eagles and humans co-existed. Three complete skeletons are known, one of them found in a cave near Nelson as recently as 1989. The giant eagle "is presumed to have preyed on other birds, especially (perhaps) moa," Gill says. The bird is thought to have been a forest eagle, flashing down on prey from high branches rather than soaring on thermal updrafts.

$1.50
Single Stamp

Single $1.80 'Giant moa (Dinornis giganteus)' gummed stamp.

Not surprisingly, of all New Zealand's extinct birds, the moa have excited the greatest interest, these amazing flightless birds were avian standouts, with the biggest of the 11 species among the world's largest birds. The Giant moa, at full stretch, head thrust up, touched three metres, the tallest of any bird. And it was one of the heaviest at up to 250 kilograms. It was found throughout New Zealand but was more common in the South Island and vast deposits of sub-fossil bones have been found. The bird disappeared about 500 years ago, hunted to extinction by the Māori.

$1.80
Single Stamp

Single 40c 'Stout-legged wren (Pachyplichas yaldwyni)' self-adhesive booklet stamp.

This wren was the largest of five species of wren to have become extinct in the last 500 years. The most recent of the five died out only in the 1970s. The species that died out earlier, among them the stout-legged wren, were remarkable for being flightless, the smallest birds in the world known to have been unable to fly. The stout-legged wren used its powerful legs and feet to scamper about the forest floor, more like a mouse than a bird.

$0.40
Miniature Sheet Mint, used or cancelled miniature sheet. $1.80
First Day Cover First day cover with stamps affixed. Cancelled on the first day of issue. $7.35
Miniature Sheet First Day Cover First day cover with gummed miniature sheet affixed. Cancelled on the first day of issue. $2.05
Self-adhesive Booklet Booklet containing 10 x 40c self-adhesive stamps. $4.00
Presentation Pack Presentation pack containing a selection of stamp products from the issue and further information on the theme of the stamps. $8.50

Technical information

Date of issue: 2 October 1996
Stamps, miniature sheet and first day covers designed by: Geoffrey Cox, Auckland, New Zealand
Number of Stamps: Seven 
Denominations and designs: Sheet stamps: $0.40 Adzebill, $0.80 Laughing owl, $1.00 Piopio, $1.20 Huia, $1.50 Giant eagle, $1.80 Giant moa; Self-adhesive booklet stamps: 10 x 40c Stout-legged wren; Miniature sheet: $1.80 Giant moa
Printer and process: Sheet stamps: Southern Colour Print, Dunedin, by lithography; Self-adhesive booklet stamps: Australia Post Sprintpak, Melbourne, by lithography with stochastic screening; Miniature sheet: Southern Colour Print, Dunedin, by lithography
Stamp size and format: Sheet stamps: 40mm x 28mm (horizontal); Self-adhesive booklet stamps: 30mm x 25mm (horizontal)
Perforation gauge: 14 x 14 
Paper type: Sheet stamps: 103 gsm red phosphor coated; Self-adhesive booklet stamps: JAC self-adhesive stamp paper; Miniature sheet 103gsm red phosphor coated
Number of stamps per sheet: 100
Number of stamps per booklet: 10
Special blocks: Plate/imprint, positional or value blocks could be obtained by purchasing at least six stamps from a sheet
Period of sale: These stamps reamined on sale until 2 October 1997.