Tarapunga, or the Red-Billed Gull, and New Zealand’s Health Stamps

New Zealand - Scott #B67 (1964)
New Zealand – Scott #B67 (1964)

My random stamp days (and there have been a lot of them recently) are not always so random as I usually decide the country that I want to pick from before selecting a stamp. I try not to choose from the same issuing entity too often (sometimes that can’t be avoided) and the United States has yet to be included in a random stamp day as they are adequately covered with anniversary and birthday commemorations. Today, I knew I wanted a stamp from New Zealand and the first one I picked up was one portraying a kiwi bird. It just happened to be a rather ugly stamp which reminded me that I have yet to obtain one of the very attractive “round kiwis” the nation has been issuing for years. Duly ordered and I went to pick up another stamp, a bird that didn’t initially present itself in Google search results until I used its common name rather than the Māori one inscribed on the stamp itself.

The red-billed gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae scopulinus), once also known as the mackerel gull, is a native of New Zealand, being found throughout the country and on outlying islands including the Chatham Islands and subantarctic islands. It was formerly considered as a separate species but is now usually treated as a subspecies of the silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae).

The Māori name of this species is tarapunga or akiaki. Its vernacular name is sometimes also used for the dolphin gull, a somewhat similar-looking but unrelated species. As is the case with many gulls, the red-billed gull has traditionally been placed in the genus Larus.

A red-billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) in Picton, Marlborough, New Zealand. Photo taken by Sid Mosdell on October 2, 2010.
A red-billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) in Picton, Marlborough, New Zealand. Photo taken by Sid Mosdell on October 2, 2010.

The red-billed gull is a fairly small gull with an all-red bill, red eye ring, red legs and feet, pale grey wings with black wingtips. The rest of the body and tail are white. There is virtually no visual difference between the male and female birds. Juvenile gulls have a dark brown bill with only hints of red, making them difficult to distinguish from the black-billed gull. The legs are also brown and there are brown spots on the grey wings.

It is the smallest gull commonly seen in New Zealand; a recent estimate of the population puts it at half a million birds in the country. Until recently it was regarded as a subspecies of the silver gull found in Australia, and the two species are very similar in appearance. However the most recent research suggests that they are not particularly closely related.

Behaviorally, the red-billed gull is a typical gull. It is an aggressive scavenger and kleptoparasite. Since European settlement its numbers have increased, especially around coastal towns and cities where it can scavenge from urban waste. It normally feeds on small fish, shell fish and worms (from pastures), and sometimes berries, lizards and insects.

 Red-billed gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae scopulinus) at Brighton Beach, New Zealand. Photo taken by Daniel Gammert.
Red-billed gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae scopulinus) at Brighton Beach, New Zealand. Photo taken by Daniel Gammert.

They nest from October to December in colonies on the coast, either on islands or rocky headlands, cliffs and beaches. The birds form pair bonds which endure across seasons, but there is a certain amount of extra-pair copulation. Courtship feeding is an important part of the preparation for mating. Nests are well formed and may be constructed of seaweed, grasses, leaves and ice plants. Generally two to three eggs are laid, their color ranges from brown to grey with light and dark brown spots all over. The bird generally lives up to 12 years, although individuals have also been found living up to 30 years.

Scott #B67 was issued by New Zealand on August 5, 1967. The 2½-pence semi-postal stamps portrayed the tarapunga while the second stamp in the set, with a base denomination of 3 pence, pictured the  korora — the smallest species of penguin measuring around 43 cm tall — which in New Zealand are also known as little blue penguins due to their slate-blue plumage (Scott #B68). Both stamps were printed using the photogravure process in miniature sheets of eight stamps with a multiple NZ and star watermark, perforated 14, and bore a 1-penny surcharge for charitable causes in addition to the charge for postal service. These were part of a long-running series of charity stamp issued by New Zealand known as health stamps that were issued annually from 1929 to 2016. The tarapunga stamp was printed in light blue, pale yellow, red and black. A notable flaw on the 2½d stamp exists where the registration of the red printing is offset resulting in a red billed gull with four legs.

A red billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) eating Taupata (Coprosma repens) berries. A number of red billed gulls landed on the same tree and picked off berries. Photo taken at Scorching Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, by Tony Wills on January 23, 2014.
A red billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) eating Taupata (Coprosma repens) berries. A number of red billed gulls landed on the same tree and picked off berries. Photo taken at Scorching Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, by Tony Wills on January 23, 2014.

The idea of issuing health stamps in New Zealand originated in the late 1920s. Initial credit is given to a 1926 request by E. Nielsen of Norsewood on behalf of his mother that special fundraising be done for deserving health projects. Letters and articles promoting the idea appeared in newspaper articles in subsequent years, although the official suggestion for the issue of a stamp is credited to the secretary of the Post Office Department, G. M’Namara.

The stamps were modeled on Christmas seals, first issued in Denmark in 1904 and subsequently in other countries. While in other countries Christmas seals were charity labels that could be affixed to mail along with postage stamp, the New Zealand seals combined both postage and charity in a single label.

Authority to issue charity stamps was created by section 34 of the Finance Act 1929, which states

… the Postmaster-General may cause to be created special postage-stamps of the denomination of two pence, which shall be available only for the payment of postage on postal packets, and for that purpose shall be deemed to have a value of one penny only.

The act continues to state that the additional revenue raised shall be used

for such purposes in relation to the prevention or cure of disease or the promotion of public health, as may be approved by the Minister of Health.

Red billed gull (Larus scopulinus) in Wellington Harbour, Wellington, New Zealand. Photo taken by Tony Willis on May 24, 2007.
Red billed gull (Larus scopulinus) in Wellington Harbour, Wellington, New Zealand. Photo taken by Tony Willis on May 24, 2007.

The first New Zealand Christmas seal was approved by the Government in October 1929, and issued on December 11 of that year. A statement by Minister of Health Arthur Stallworthy appeared in newspapers on that day, announcing

To-day we launch our Christmas seal campaign to stamp out tuberculosis

and further identifying the charity:

the first claim upon the funds raised by the inaugural Christmas seal should be the children’s health camp movement.

Although the Finance Act 1929 gave the Minister of Health the power to choose the charities supported by the stamps, the idea to support the health camps is credited to the permanent head of the Health Department, Dr. Michael Herbert Watt.

Health camps had been run in New Zealand since 1919, when Dr Elizabeth Gunn ran a three-week camp for children at Turakina near Wanganui. The camps provided holiday relief for children with nutritional and minor physical problems. Children’s health camps have continued to be the recipient of money from New Zealand health stamps from this time on; the country’s seven children’s health camps (Te Puna Whaiora) are now managed by the New Zealand Foundation for Child and Family Health and Development.

Adult and juvenile red billed gulls (Larus scopulinus) in flight (adult left, juvenile right), showing difference in plumage. Photo taken in Wellington Harbour, Wellington, New Zealand, by Tony Willis on September 5, 2007.
Adult and juvenile red billed gulls (Larus scopulinus) in flight (adult left, juvenile right), showing difference in plumage. Photo taken in Wellington Harbour, Wellington, New Zealand, by Tony Willis on September 5, 2007.

The design for the 1929 Christmas seal features a nurse, the inscription HELP STAMP OUT TUBERCULOSIS, and the postage and charity denominations. In 1930 the stamp was reissued with the inscription HELP PROMOTE HEALTH. In accordance with the 1929 Finance Act, these stamps both sold for two pennies, with one penny for postage, and one penny for charity. The nurse image was drawn by L. C. Mitchell from a photograph supplied by Phillip Norton Cryer, New Zealand Director General of Post and Telegraph, of his niece, a registered nurse, Nellie Rebecca Burt purely for its suitability. The frame was designed by staff at the Government Printing Office. This was Mitchell’s first stamp design; he continued as one of New Zealand’s most prolific stamp designers until the 1970s.

The 1931 issue is perhaps the most famous of the early Health stamps. As a depression-era measure, postage rates for private mail had increased to two pennies (this was reversed in 1932), and so a second stamp was needed. As the 1929 Finance Act had explicitly stated the value of charity stamps, an amendment to the act was required to permit the second stamp. This was provided by section 11 of the Finance (No. 4) Act of 1931, which deleted the explicit values, and allowed the Postmaster-General to issue the stamps “in such denominations as he thinks fit.”

Two stamps were issued on October 31, 1931. These were again designed by L. C. Mitchell, and are known as the “Red Boy” (denominated as 1 penny postage plus 1 penny charity) and “Blue Boy” (2 pence postage plus 1 penny charity), collectively known as the “smiling boy” stamps. These stamps included the inscription HEALTH above the postage and charity denominations. Newspaper reports refer to the stamps as “Health Stamps”. The design received widespread criticism, with an article in the Evening Post (quoting Australian Stamp Monthly) describing the design as the “world’s worst” stamp.

These stamps sold poorly due to the hardships of the Great Depression. Today they are scarce and highly prized by New Zealand collectors.

Red-billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) in flight, above Rangitoto Wharf, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo taken on December 31, 2009.
Red-billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) in flight, above Rangitoto Wharf, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo taken on December 31, 2009.

A further stamp was issued in 1932, denominated at one penny postage plus one penny health. The CHARITY inscription was dropped completely in favor of HEALTH, recognizing that the stamps were supporting the Health Camps. This inscription has continued to the final stamps in 2016, and the stamps (retroactively to 1929) are considered to be “Health Stamps” by collectors and New Zealand Post (the successor organization to the New Zealand Post Office Department). The term “Christmas seal” is now rarely used in relation to these stamps.

From 1933 to 1938, a single health stamp was issued each year, denominated as one penny postage, plus one penny health. For several of these years, the health stamp was the only non-definitive stamp issued by the New Zealand Post Office. The 1933 stamp was the first stamp designed by James Berry, another prolific New Zealand stamp designer.

Section 9 of the Adhesive Stamps Act 1939 replaced the clauses of the 1929 and 1931 Finance Acts under which health stamps were issued, although the powers of the Postmaster-General and Minister of Health were largely unchanged.

In 1939, two stamps were issued. These were initially printed as ½d+½d and 1d+1d stamps, but due to postage rate changes, the postage denominations were overprinted as 1d and 2d before issue. Two values were issued every year from 1939 until 1973, with the exception of 1955, 1956, 1969, and 1971 when there were three values. Owing to wartime strictures, in 1940 and 1941, similar issues to 1939 were used, issued in different colors (both years) and overprinted with the year (1941 only).

New Zealand - Scott #B67a (1964) [NIMC2018] - image taken from active eBay auction
New Zealand – Scott #B67a (1964) [NIMC2018] – image taken from active eBay auction

From 1973, three values became the norm, often with two lower value stamps of the same value issued as a se-tenant pair, with a third higher value stamp. In 1990, the issue reverted to two values, and most years since that time have had two or three values (the exceptions being in 2000 and 2006, with sets of six stamps issued). The 2009 issue of three stamps carried images from earlier issues to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of New Zealand health stamps.

From 1957, miniature sheets have been issued annually of New Zealand’s health stamp issues. Initially these consisted of two separate sheets each containing six stamps of the same value, but since the 1970s one sheet has been issued annually containing the entire set of stamps. Self-adhesive stamps of the lowest value in each year’s set have been issued most years since 1996, often in different designs to the gummed-sheet issue.

The last health stamps were issued in 2016, and on July 27, 2017, New Zealand Post announced that no more health stamps will be issued due to declining sales and mail volumes. According to a 2008 newspaper article, contributions from health stamps peaked at $158,000 in 1996, but had fallen to $35,000 in 2007.

New Zealand - Scott #B67-B68 (1964) - first day cover postmarked at Glenelg Health Camp, New Zealand. Glenelg Children's Health Camp was situated above the hillside suburb of Murray Aynsley Hill in Christchurch. The school for children with behavioral problems was officially opened in April 1945 and closed by the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, in January 2012.
New Zealand – Scott #B67-B68 (1964) – first day cover postmarked at Glenelg Health Camp, New Zealand. Glenelg Children’s Health Camp was situated above the hillside suburb of Murray Aynsley Hill in Christchurch. The school for children with behavioral problems was officially opened in April 1945 and closed by the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, in January 2012.

Several of New Zealand’s health stamps have notable varieties recognized by collectors. The 1957 set was issued with watermark either sideways or upright, and the 1960 set is found with two different gauges of perforation, one of which came from the miniature sheets. Stamps from the 1977 miniature sheet feature slight design differences, notably the lack of a white border around the design.

The twopenny value of the 1949 health stamp features a notable, though not particularly rare, flaw, with some stamps issued with no dot below the “d” of the value. Far rarer is an incorrect design used for the 40-cent stamp in 1996, which featured a young child sitting in a car. This was withdrawn and replaced with a new design after it was noticed that the child was incorrectly restrained. Some copies of the first design found their way to post offices, both in standard and self-adhesive form; these stamps — known to collectors as the “teddy bear” stamps because of the prominent soft toy in the design — are now among New Zealand’s rarest and most collectable stamps.

Flag of New Zealand
Flag of New Zealand
Coat of arms of New Zealand
Coat of arms of New Zealand

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