Purple Martin Philately 

Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 7(2): 6
James R. Hill, III
Purple Martin Conservation Association


Philately, or the hobby of stamp collecting, is a popular pastime among people of all ages. Those who engage in this pursuit are affectionately known as "philatelists." Many, like myself, got introduced to this hobby early in life by the influence of a parent or a peer, but it's never too late to get started.

Today, so many different postage stamps have been issued that some collectors have chosen to specialize. Many become ornithophilatelists, or collectors of bird stamps. According to the American Topical Society - a group of people who collect stamps according to the topic pictured, for example, planes, trains, or mammals - birds are among the most popular subjects collected. It's easy to see why. Nearly every country issues bird stamps, sometimes several in a year. According to ornithophilatelist, Rick Bonney ("Birding by Mail" 1995. Living Bird 14(1):17-19), more than 10,000 bird stamps have been printed, worldwide, depicting over 2,200 bird species. In fact, so many bird stamps are now available that many collectors further restrict their efforts to just a few groups of birds, such as swallows or owls.

The five postage stamps on this page are the only ones in the world known to commemorate the "Purple Martin." Surprisingly, all five are from Caribbean Island countries where Purple Martins are known only as migrants. None of the martin stamps are from the United States, Mexico, or Canada, the only three countries where Purple Martins breed. Why would several countries issue postage stamps celebrating a migrant bird that was only present for a few months each year? The explanation is mislabelling of the stamps.

Four of the five stamps, although labeled as "Purple Martin," appear to be the Snowy-bellied Martin = Caribbean Martin (Progne dominicensis) instead of the Purple Martin (Progne subis). P. dominicensis is a common breeder in the Caribbean, nesting in cavities in trees, chimneys, belfries, houses, hollow pipes, or on cliffs and in caves. Males have a bright-white belly that contrasts with the glossy steel-blue on the rest of their body. According to the American Topical Society's handbooks on bird stamps, the Turks & Caicos stamp, as well as the St. Kitts stamp, are listed as Progne dominicensis despite having the name "Purple Martin" and/or "Progne subis" on them. The handbook lists the Grenada/Grenadines stamp as Progne subis, but a British book lists it as P. dominicensis. And the Grenada stamp is also clearly a depiction of a P. dominicensis.

Why the confusion? In the past, some authors have considered the races of the Caribbean Martin to be races of the Purple Martin, while others split them apart as separate species. Within the entire genus Progne there remains great taxonomic uncertainty. Until DNA fingerprinting solves the mystery, we'll just have to enjoy the stamps. In the mean time, each of us should petition our political representatives to convince the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments to issue their own Purple Martin stamps. If anyone would like to start collecting Purple Martin postage stamps, or other bird stamps, contact: Global Stamp News, PO Box 97, Sidney, OH 45365; Eastern Shore Stamp Company, PO Box 298, Fruitland, MD 21826; American Philatelic Association, PO Box 8000, State College, PA 16803; or the American Topical Association, PO Box 630, Johnstown, PA 15907.

James R. Hill, III, is the Founder of the PMCA and is editor of the Update.

Copyright 1996 by Purple Martin Conservation Association. All Rights Reserved.

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