By Michael Round
With new additions, reprints and several changes of printers over a nearly 30-year period, the Bird Definitives of Niger can feel a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, especially when it comes to laying out an album page. Luckily Michael Round is here to help piece things together.
Firstly, an apology, or at least a warning, to collectors of ‘Birds on Stamps.’ Fascinating though all the featured birds may be, the emphasis here will be more philatelic than ornithological. Apologies, too, for any obsolete bird names. The English names I use were those current at the time of issue: many have since changed. Bird-lovers wanting more details may consult websites, or better still, the splendid articles by fellow GSM contributor P J Lanspeary (see the August 2017 issue for a sample). Collectors of errors of design should however read on: I can promise them one definite and another possible item for their albums – and a few further ‘errors’ that probably aren’t at all. The designs themselves, and their revisions – with or without errors – also provide plenty to discuss.
It’s fair to say that the former French colony of Niger, although (and surprisingly) the biggest country in West Africa, is one of its least-known and least collected. The Republic of the Niger, to give it its full title, is land-locked, is 80 per cent desert (yes, the Sahara), and has a literacy rate of only around 29 per cent – which helps to explain the scarcity of used stamps compared to those of far more populous neighbour Nigeria. After a period of post-colonial autonomy, Niger became fully independent, like many other African colonies, in 1960 – and like them relied at first on the outgoing colonial power for the supply of new issues.
Most of the former French African colonies, Niger included, celebrated their independence with a full definitive set, including airmails and postage dues and often featuring local wildlife. Niger’s first set (SG 99/114) included a few ‘bird’ stamps, but the Bird definitives under discussion here date from several years later.
The jigsaw begins
Like their definitive predecessors, the Birds appeared in small instalments, and over many years. The Scott (USA), Yvert et Tellier (France), Michel (Germany) and SG catalogues all group them differently, which may determine how you choose to Rounddisplay them on the album page.
The first three values (1f. Red-billed Hornbill, 2f. Pied Kingfishers and 30f. Barbary Shrikes) appeared on 8 February 1967 (SG 247/9, Fig 1). They were recess-engraved by the experienced French Government Printing Works in Paris (hereinafter FGPW), and collectors of France will recognise the style immediately. They are hugely popular with collectors, and with reason: skilled engraving and restrained colours (rarely more than three per stamp) make each one a miniature masterpiece of design.
Just one feature among these first three values might cause confusion. The black object dangling from the Hornbill’s beak on the 1f. is not a dead snake or other prey item, but represents the slit in an otherwise walled-up hollow tree through which the male bird feeds the incarcerated female during incubation.
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