The U.S. Postal Service gets well-deserved criticism for closing small post offices and running deficits. But it is also one of the best sources of outstanding art that anyone, even children, can afford to collect. And 2012 has some exciting new stamps in production.
On Jan. 20, a five-stamp series will be issued featuring birds of prey - northern goshawk, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, osprey and northern harrier. Each is depicted in a colorful portrait from the neck up against a white background. Previews of these and other 2012 stamps can be viewed at www.beyondtheperf.com/2012-preview.
Other nature-themed stamps coming in 2012 include a stylized Baltimore checkerspot butterfly and a forever-stamped envelope featuring purple martins, one perched and one in flight.
I began collecting stamps when I was in graduate school because it was the only form of art I could afford. One of my favorite sets is a matted group of three 20-stamp panes featuring one-cent American kestrels (1991), two-cent red-headed woodpeckers (1996), and three-cent eastern bluebirds (1996). My total cost for all 60 stamps was just $1.20 at the post office.
I limit my stamp collecting to wildlife and nature-related themes. My oldest stamps date back to 1956, gifts from relatives. That wildlife conservation series featured wild turkeys, pronghorn antelope and king salmon, all valued at three cents. A year later a three-cent whooping crane stamp appeared. Thereafter, wildlife appeared on stamps every few years. If we broaden the category to include plants, national parks and nature in general, it's unusual when no wildlife stamp appears.
In 1968, a six-cent waterfowl conservation stamp (not a duck stamp) caught my eye. It featured two wood ducks in flight. In 1970 it was the bison's turn (six-cent).
In 1971, a wildlife conservation series of eight-cent stamps became one of my favorites. A trout, an alligator, a California condor and a polar bear with two cubs starred. The next year another eight-cent conservation series featured fur seals, a cardinal, a brown pelican and a bighorn sheep.
In 1978, a wildlife conservation series featured four American owls - great horned, great gray, saw-whet and barred. I suspect it was one of the most popular series the USPS ever issued.
In 1981, a monochromatic series of American wildlife appeared. Though absent color, it remains an impressive set depicting bighorn sheep, puma, harbor seal, bison, brown bear, polar bear, elk, moose, white-tailed deer and pronghorn. Later that year, an 18-cent ''Preservation of Habitats'' series featured a great blue heron (wetlands), badger (grassland), grizzly bear (mountains) and ruffed grouse (woodlands).
In 1982, the USPS outdid itself by issuing a series of 50 20-cent stamps, one for each state. The stamps featured the state bird and state flower from all 50 states. The northern cardinal won the popularity contest; it was honored by seven states - Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Wildlife eventually appeared on postage for packages and heavy letters. In 1990, a two-dollar bobcat stamp appeared. Two years later a 45-cent stamp depicting a pumpkinseed sunfish was issued.
In 1992, a 29-cent hummingbird series featured ruby-throated, broad-billed, Costa's, rufous and calliope hummers. In 1996 two 32-cent series highlighted prehistoric mammals (eohippus, woolly mammoth, mastodon, saber-tooth cat) and endangered species, including black-footed ferret, thick-billed parrot, American crocodile, ocelot, Florida panther, piping plover and Florida manatee.
A 33-cent deep sea creature series featured angelfish, sea cucumber, fangtooth, amphipod and medusa in 2000, followed by a 34-cent carnivorous plants series in 2001 (Venus flytrap, yellow trumpet, cobra lily, English sundew). A 2002 series featured a 37-cent block of American bats - red, leaf-nosed, pallid, spotted bats.
And in 2003, a colorful 37-cent series focused on reptiles and amphibians, including scarlet king snake, blue-spotted salamander, reticulate collared lizard, ornate chorus frog and ornate box turtle.
The USPS has chronicled the history of wildlife conservation by making it collectable. And I haven't even mentioned the arctic animals from 1999 or the 1999 20-stamp pane of insects and spiders. Do yourself and your children a favor; start a wildlife stamp collection with the ''Birds of Prey'' later this month.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, scottshalaway.googlepages.com.