A History of the Federal Duck Stamp

by: Mark Madison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Historian

Sadly for our more imaginative readers, I have to report  that the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp  or rather, the “Duck Stamp” is not something you use to mail a duck.  However, it is something the American people have used very successfully to save our ducks and other waterfowl.  At its most beautiful and simplest it has been our most useful tool to save our waterfowl heritage for future generations.

The origins of the Duck Stamp date back to 1934 and our Chief of the Biological Survey, Jay “Ding” Darling.  Darling and the Duck Stamp both entered our agency in 1934, a seemingly inauspicious year of economic and ecological disaster as the Depression and Dust Bowls blanketed North America.  Just as farmers in the Great Plains were displaced by the droughts and dust, so too migratory waterfowl saw their prairie potholes dry up and disappear losing their critical locations to breed, feed, and rest in the so-called “Dirty Thirties.”  In the midst of this most dire period, a new conservation leader emerged in our agency to literally lead us out of the growing Great Plains desert—Ding Darling.

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Ding Darling hunting

Darling was a critic of the New Deal, a Republican friend of Herbert Hoover, and eventually a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist.  So he seemed an unlikely choice to head a New Deal Conservation agency like the Biological Survey.  And he was hesitant noting:

“I certainly did not want the job.  A singed cat was never more conscious of the dangers of fire than I was of the hazards in trying to get anything done in Washington.”

But his love of waterfowl overcame his distrust of Franklin Roosevelt when he agreed to take over as Chief of the Biological Survey in 1934.  Darling’s tenure as Director lasted a mere 20 months but it set the Duck Stamp and the refuge system on a new path for the next 82 years.

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Roseate spoonbills at today’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo: Harold Wagle, finalist NWRA 2012

Six days after taking office, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act was passed, a bill Darling had long championed, providing ongoing funds for migratory bird habitat acquisition.  Funded by duck hunters, this Act created the Federal Duck Stamp Program, which almost immediately provided substantial funding for the purchase of wetlands across the country.  It is easy for us looking back to underestimate the impact of this little stamp in 1934.  First, it is striking that waterfowl hunters, of which Darling was one, had agreed to impose a voluntary tax on themselves to support their feathered friends.  Second, the fact that Duck Stamp monies were annual funds meant the agency had for the first time an ongoing continual source of funds to strategically acquire wetlands.  This had never happened before and it was a revolutionary idea.

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2013 Youth Waterfowl Hunt in the Huron Wetland Management District. This event provided hunters ages 12-15 an opportunity to learn about migratory birds, their habitats, calls, decoys, and waterfowl hunting techniques. Photo: Chuck Pyle/ USFWS

The new Duck Stamp needed an image immediately and Darling the artist hastily drew 6 quick sketches on the cardboard frames used for stiffening dry-cleaned shirts, the best available material in his office at the time.  Colonel Sheldon, the Bureau’s Chief of Public Relations, inadvertently took these drafts to the Bureau of Engraving which selected one and made it into the first duck stamp. Darling felt his hastily sketched image of a mallard hen and drake landing in a marsh were not grand enough art for the first duck stamp and he was furious.  He noted, “I could have murdered Colonel Sheldon and all the Bureau of engraving personnel and every time I look at the proof design of the first duck stamp I still want to do it.”  No doubt Darling wished he could have busted Colonel Sheldon down to Private.  You can see the first duck stamp and an early engraving and judge for yourselves, but I think Darling was being too critical.   When I look at the little stamp I join millions of hunters, bird lovers, and the birds themselves in seeing the most beautiful image he ever created.

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Brush and ink drawings of Mallards by Jay N. “Ding” Darling. Photo: USFWS Duck Stamp Collection

In its first year, 635,001 duck stamps were sold and with new funds coming in it was time to find some habitat for the ducks, for as Darling noted: “ducks can’t nest on picket fences.”  In less than two years, Darling and and the Biological Survey helped create 45 new refuges, and protect more than 1.5 million acres of land across the continent.   A vast system of waterfowl refuges were created along migratory flyways.  The refuge system was growing faster than any time since Theodore Roosevelt had created the first refuge in 1903.  With the expansion of the refuge system, a symbol was needed so that when people visited a national wildlife refuge they would know they were on sacred ground, a covenant between the American people to protect their wildlife.  Once again Darling drew a simple sketch hardly guessing it would become another widely reproduced and admired icon–the flying blue goose that is now found on more than 500 refuges crossing the continent on more than 100 million acres.  How fitting that this visionary artist, who helped design the duck stamp and refuge blue goose sign, has shaped our vision of how wildlife can be conserved.  Darling both conceived and illustrated a conservation vision we are honoring this evening 75 year’s later.

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A short-eared owl perches atop a National Wildlife Refuge sign featuring the classic blue goose, illustrated by J.N. “Ding” Darling Photo: Jason Murphy/ USFWS

The Duck Stamp itself  evolved as our ideas about nature evolved.  It became a contest in 1949 and in 1989 the Junior Duck Stamp Program began. What has remained unchanged is the vision of millions of Americans putting their wallets where their values are by purchasing individual stamps to protect our precious national wildlife resource.

So how to conclude in looking back at the origins of the Duck Stamp?  First, it is one of the few governmental initiatives that we can say without irony, is for the birds. What began as a quickly sketched $1 stamp has raised more than $800 million and acquired 5.7 million acres of habitat in all 50 states—that is a lot of bucks for ducks.

There is also a lesson here about idealism.  Many of Darling’s initiatives involved a leap of faith, a belief that waterfowl hunters would voluntarily tax themselves to save their beloved ducks, that in the most dire era of the Depression people could be mobilized for aid to other creatures, and that the government could successfully solve a problem.  All of these leaps of faith came to fruition.  This provides a useful lesson that with enough faith we can achieve the impossible.

Or as the poet Emily Dickinson said much eloquently:

“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune–without the words,

And never stops at all.”

On September 12, 2016, Minnesota artist James Hautman won this year’s Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest with his acrylic painting of Canada geese. The painting will be made into the 2017-2018 stamp,  which will go on sale in late June 2017.

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James Hautman’s winning painting of Canada geese. Photo: USFWS

Rebekah Knight of Missouri, who previously won the National Junior Duck Stamp Contest, placed second. This year’s contest was held in Philadelphia at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and was also sponsored by the Friends of Heinz Refuge, Ducks Unlimited, Pennsylvania Game Commission, William Penn Foundation and National Audubon Society.

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Second place – Rebekah Knight of Appleton City, MO, with a brant. Photo: USFWS

If you’re a supporter of conservation or the arts, a birder, a hunter, a hiker or just an outdoor enthusiast, you can purchase a duck stamp online or at your local post office or National Wildlife Refuge.

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