[Book review] Birds of the mountains feature in a new book on birds on postage stamps

  • In a new book, retired Indian Forest Service officer, M. Lokeswara Rao has compiled information about Himalayan birds featured on Indian stamps.
  • A seasoned philatelist, the author has been a forester and spent many years in northeast India, close to the Himalayas.
  • The subject of birds is among the most popular thematic subjects when it comes to stamps.

When Rowland Hill conceived and brought into use the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in England in 1840, he would hardly have imagined that in creating a device for advance payment for conveying letters, he was also sowing seeds for a mammoth passion – philately. India released its first stamp, the Scinde Dawk, in 1852. Legend has it that the practice of collecting stamps originated with a whimsical idea of a dowager to decorate the interior walls of her home with used stamps. It soon grew in popularity even as more and more nations adopted the system and issued stamps. As the number of stamps increased worldwide, over the years, collectors began to look for stamps on specific subjects and thematics as a dimension of philately came to be accepted.

By the 1970s, thematic collections were seen in all the exhibitions. Thematics differs from the traditional way of collecting stamps; collectors are free to pick any subject they like. Since 1985, thematics collections have been regulated by The Federation Internationale de Philatelic (FIP). Noted writer on philately, Margret Hatchet, has been quoted as saying, “Thematic collection is not a reference work illustrated by stamps, but a stamp collection highlighted by thematic knowledge, the theme of which should be apparent throughout.”  There is also a journal, Topical Time, devoted to this subject.

This book under review, Himalayan Birds on Stamps, is on one such philatelic theme, the birds of the Himalayas. The book pertains to two realms of knowledge – philately and ornithology. The author of this book M. Lokeswara Rao has been a forester all his life and has spent many years in northeast India, close to the Himalayas, the subject of his study. He is a seasoned philatelist whose career has been in the forests. In both disciplines, the author has a firm grip and is comfortable. So, he writes about both subjects with authority. If a collector chooses a theme related to their work, they have a distinct advantage, like a civil engineer collecting stamps on bridges.

There have been books on bird stamps, such as The Golden Book of Bird Stamps by Sonia Bleeker (1976). But Rao’s book looks at a specific geographical area that is rich in bird diversity. However, the birds covered in this book are not just birds of the mountains. Many of these live in other habitats as well, such as the magpie robin.

Image shows cover and pages of a book
The author deals with each country in a separate chapter and subjects both the stamps and the birds to close examination. Photos of the book from M. Lokeswara Rao.

The popularity of birds and stamps in India

The subject of birds is a popular thematic subject in philately. According to one calculation, by 2011, more than 28,000 bird stamps had been issued all around the world.  The author here narrows it down to the Himalayas, which covers the stamps of five nations, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan, that are part of the mountain chain. Among these, Bhutan and Nepal are fully Himalayan as they are surrounded by these mountains. The stamps released by these countries reflect the rich biodiversity of the region.

Many birds featured in this book, migrate down south of the Indian subcontinent in winter. For instance, bar-headed geese are winter visitors to south India. In addition, there are birds that come under the category of relict birds, that is, species that are seen in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats down south, but nowhere in between. The grey-headed canary flycatcher is one such example. In the Nilgiris, you could spot this dainty little bird with a mesmerising song. Remember, it is not a migrant.

India released its first set of bird stamps in 1968, which included species such as blue magpie. But the set had been produced quite lackadaisically. It did not feature specific names but instead used umbrella names like woodpeckers, while there are quite a few species of woodpeckers in India.

Image shows a group of people standing side by side releasing a bird
The author releasing a satellite-tagged Amur Falcon at Pangti, Wokha Nagaland, when he was PCCF and HoFF Nagaland in 2013. Photo from M. Lokeswara Rao.

It is a pity that many countries, including India, do not feature the scientific name of a bird in a bird stamp. A bird’s popular name can differ from country to country and even within the country, from region to region. So, the scientific name becomes crucial. Not just in stamps of birds, but in all stamps featuring any flora and fauna. Though many philatelists have raised this issue over the year, the flaw persists. However, Nepal and Bhutan provide the scientific name, though not for all their stamps.

The author deals with each country in a separate chapter and subjects both the stamps and the birds to close examination. All the stamps discussed have been reproduced photographically and each bird is described in detail. Those sections read like an authentic field guide. But the names of the photographers are not given anywhere. The artists’ names are missing, except for G. M. Henry and Rajmansingh. Wildlife artist Pratibha Pande whose paintings were used for some stamps in India, is forgotten. Some postal administrations have in-house artists, but independent artists are often engaged but rarely acknowledged in the brochure released with each new stamp.

The author deals with the stamps country-wise, providing all the vital details of each stamp. All the philatelic material relating to birds, stamps, both commemorative and definitive series, first-day covers, postcards, miniature sheets and maxim cars are covered in this work. The conservation status of each bird is also provided. For this purpose, he cites IUCN records.

Paintings vs. photographs

However, the author has not touched upon the actual content of the stamp – what is depicted, whether it is a photo, drawing or painting. The style of the painting is also not mentioned. For instance, many Chinese stamps bear a distinct style of painting. This aspect of the creation of a stamp should be noticed and recorded. The editing should have been tighter. The list of philatelic materials brought out by India has been repeated. (It appears in Annexures I and II).

Image shows a series of stamps featuring birds
Many countries, including India, do not feature the scientific name of a bird in a bird stamp, although Nepal and Bhutan have some stamps containing the bird’s scientific name. Photos from M. Lokeswara Rao.

The photographs have been reproduced sharply, and the photos of stamps have also been printed with precision. One of the welcome features of the book is the bibliography. This will be very useful to both researchers and collectors.

Hopefully, the book will also motivate the postal administrations of the world to pay closer attention to the production of stamps. It may bring about some kind of standardisation and avoid inadequacies. For instance, Bhutan has issued a stamp featuring a mallard and calls it merely a ‘duck.’

The author is a former Chief Postmaster General of Tamil Nadu, a film historian and wildlife conservationist. He has authored several books.


Banner image: A collection of stamps released by the Government of India highlighting four endangered species of birds. Photo by Post of India.

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