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

Living in an almost totally predator-free environment, New Zealand's birds evolved in remarkable ways. They tended to become larger and many lost the power of flight.

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 1000 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. Maori 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. Many New Zealand birds, especially the flightless ground-dwellers, could not combat these new enemies.

Maori destroyed habitat by clearing land, and European settlers accelerated the process as they drained swamps and burned forest to establish farms. The birds who lived in these environments could not cope. 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 of this stamp issue was that all the sheet stamps were printed with the name and a brief description of each bird on the reverse (gummed) side of each stamp. the self -adhesive booklet stamp was printed by Australia Post-Sprintpak, while the remaining stamps of the issue were printed by Southern Colour Print.

Self-Adhesive Booklet Stamp, Stout-legged wren (Pachyplichas yaldwyni) - 40c
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.

Adzebill (Aptornis otidiformis) - 40c
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 Maori 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 Maori reached New Zealand about 1000 years ago.

Laughing owl (Sceloglaux albifacies):
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.

Piopio (Turnagra capensis) - $1.00 
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 1800s 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.

Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) - $1.20
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.

Giant eagle (Harpagornis moorei) - $1.50
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.

Giant moa (Dinornis giganteus) - $1.80
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 Maori.

Miniature Sheet
Incorporating the $1.80 giant moa (Dinornis giganteus) stamp.

Taipei '96 Extinct Birds Miniature Sheet
Issued 21 October 1996
The Extinct Birds miniature sheet was also produced, with a Taipei '96 overprint, to commemorate the Taipei '96 10th Asian International Philatelic Exhibition held 21- 27 October 1996.

Technical information

Date of Issue: 4 October 1996
Designer: Geoffrey Cox, Auckland, NZ
Printers: Sheet stamps: Southern Colour Print, New Zealand; Self-adhesive Stamp: Australia Post-Sprintpak, Australia
Stamp Size: 40mm x 28mm
Sheet Sizes: 100 stamps per sheet; 10 stamps per booklet; Miniature sheets of one stamp
Process: Lithography
Perforation Gauge: 14; Self-adhesive: Die cut perforations
Paper Type: Sheet stamps: Harrison and Sons; Self-adhesive stamp: JAC self-adhesive, red phosphor coated, unwatermarked