Jan. 31, 2023
Lost Birds of Norfolk Island
On January 31, 2023, Australia Post will issue two stamp designs inscribed “Norfolk Island” in gummed sheets of 50 stamps each and a miniature sheet containing one of each design. These depict two birds that are now extinct on Norfolk Island. The stamps are valid throughout Australia and its territories. The $1.20 Australian dollar denomination illustrates the Norfolk pigeon while the Norfolk kākā appears on the $2.40 stamp. According to Australia Post:
A small island territory at the juncture of tropical and temperate environments, Norfolk Island, with its mild climate and isolated location, is significant for both vagrant and endemic faunal species.
Since European arrival in 1788, Norfolk Island has lost five endemic bird species and five subspecies. Australia has a regrettable record for species extinctions, and Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands both have a particularly poor record for avian extinctions. The key reasons for this are hunting (in earlier years), predation by introduced species, such as rats and cats, and forest clearance. All of these have a grave impact on species’ survival on a small landmass.
This stamp issue features two of the larger forest birds that once inhabited the South Pacific territory: the Norfolk Island Pigeon and Norfolk Island Kaka. The minisheet and first day cover feature two smaller birds no longer found in the territory: the Norfolk Island Thrush and the Norfolk Long-tailed Triller.Australia Post Collectibles
The Norfolk pigeon or Norfolk Island pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae spadicea), sometimes called a wood quest, was a subspecies of the New Zealand pigeon (kererū) that inhabited Norfolk Island. This population probably colonized Norfolk Island from New Zealand during the Pleistocene. It became extinct around the turn of the 20th century.
German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster described the Norfolk pigeon as Columba argetraea in 1794, however the name was not used. English ornithologist John Latham described it as Columba spadicea in his 1801 work Supplementum Indicis Ornithologici.
Twenty specimens of the Norfolk Pigeon are known. Three of these are in the Natural History Museum, Leiden, two in the Natural History Museum New York and one specimen in World Museum Liverpool. DNA extracted and sequenced from toepad tissue revealed that the Norfolk Island pigeon is genetically sister to the New Zealand Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae population.
Early records from Norfolk Island indicate the local people gave it the name “wood quest”, however the name was not passed on from the second settlement to the Pitcairn settlers. The term is related to the words “queece“, “queest” and “quist” used for the wood pigeon in the West Midlands and southwestern England.
The abundance of the Norfolk pigeon at the time of the island’s settlement is unknown. Early records indicate the presence of the bird, but do not contain any information on its numbers. Based on the behavior of the other subspecies, it is likely that the bird relied upon fruiting plants for food.
The extinction of the Norfolk pigeon was caused by a combination of the introduction of cats and weasels, habitat destruction by human settlers, and direct hunting by humans. Before European settlement, the bird had been hunted by Polynesian settlers of the island. When Europeans reached the island, however, the birds remained and the Polynesians did not. The Europeans took up the bird as a food source. An officer of the penal colony there, Ensign Abel Dottin William Best, recorded the species as still quite common in 1838, with his journals mentioning his successful hunting of 72 birds, including 25 on September 18, 1838. The last sighting occurred in 1901. Direct hunting by humans was probably the dominant cause of extinction.
The Norfolk pigeon was first depicted on a stamp issued by Norfolk Island on February 24, 1971 (Scott #134). The illustration of the pigeon on the 2023 stamp is by Dutch-born artist John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912) and reproduced from LW Rothchild’s 1907 book, Extinct Birds. It was reproduced courtesy of State Library Victoria.
The Norfolk kākā (Nestor productus) is an extinct species of large parrot, belonging to the parrot family Nestoridae. The birds were about 38 cm long, with mostly olive-brown upperparts, (reddish-)orange cheeks and throat, straw-colored breast, thighs, rump and lower abdomen dark orange and a prominent beak. It inhabited the rocks and treetops of Norfolk Island and adjacent Phillip Island. It was a relative of the New Zealand kākā.
The Norfolk kākā was first described by the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg following the discovery of Norfolk Island by James Cook on 10 October 1774. The description was only published in 1844. Around 1790, John Hunter depicted a bird on a kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare). The bird was formally described by John Gould in 1836 as Plyctolophus productus, from a specimen at the Zoological Society of London. Originally, the individuals from Norfolk Island and Philip Island were considered two separate species, Nestor norfolcensis (described by August von Pelzeln in 1860) and Nestor productus, respectively, but direct comparison of specimens of both islands showed that they were the same species.
Little is known of the bird’s biology. It was said to have lived both on the ground and in tall trees, feeding on flowering shrubs and trees. The call was described by Gould as “hoarse, quacking, inharmonious noise, sometimes resembling the barking of a dog”.
The Polynesians who lived on Norfolk Island for some time before the arrival of the Europeans hunted the kākā for food before disappearing from the island around the 1600s. It was also hunted for food and trapped as a pet after the arrival of the first settlers in 1788. The species’ population suffered heavily after a penal colony was maintained from 1788 to 1814, and again from 1825 to 1854. The species likely became extinct in the wild in the early nineteenth century some time during the period of this second penal colony. It was not recorded by Ensign Abel D. W. Best on either Norfolk or Phillip Island in his 1838/1839 diary entries. As Best collected specimens for ornithology, including the Norfolk parakeet (which he called “lories”, being similar in shape), it is hard to accept that he would not have documented this much more attractive quarry, had the kākā still been present. The last bird in captivity died in London in 1851.
Naturalis in Leiden has 2 skins; one male and one female. Both individuals originate from Philip Island. The male skin was acquired in 1863 long after the species’ assumed disappearance, but it is unknown how it came to Leiden. It is more likely, given Phillip Island was already overrun with feral pigs, rabbits, goats and chicken in late 1838, that the 1863 specimen was purchased from another collection. The single unsexed individual from Philip Island at the Zoölogisch Museum had been obtained before 1860, and originate probably from the same batch as the two specimens at Naturalis in Leiden. An old list of the specimens of birds present in the British Museum of Natural History list two individuals, both from Philip Island. One of the two specimens came from Bell’s collection.
The Norfolk kākā first appeared on a stamp in the Norfolk Island birds series issued on July 22, 1970 (Scott #136), identified as the Philip Island Parrot (Nestor productus). The illustration on the 2023 stamp is also by John Gerrard Keulemans and reproduced from L.W. Rothchild’s Extinct Birds. It was reproduced courtesy of State Library Victoria.
Issue date: 31 January 2023
Issue withdrawal date: 1 September 2023
Denomination: $1.20 x 1, $2.40 x 1
Stamp design: Sharon Rodziewicz, Australia Post Design Studio
Product design: Sharon Rodziewicz, Australia Post Design Studio
Paper: gummed Tullis Russell 104gsm Red Phos.
Printer: RA Printing
Printing process: Offset lithography
Stamp size (mm): 37.5 x 26
Minisheet size (mm): 135 x 80
Perforations: 13.86 x 14.6
Sheet layout: Module of 50 (no design)
FDI Postmark: Norfolk Island NSW 2899
FDI withdrawal date: 1 March 2023
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