Tag Archives: Migratory birds

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Red knots battle climate change—on both ends of the Earth

Today we’re sharing a story from Audubon Magazine written by Deborah Cramer, author of The Narrow Edge: A tiny bird, an ancient crab, and an epic journey. The tiny, threatened red knot is an omen for how devastating ocean acidification can be.

The vast, unbroken beach at Bahía Lomas stretches for about 30 miles along the Strait of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of South America. I’ve stood for hours hoping to see shorebirds in this remote, inhospitable place, where the wind blows at hurricane strength, the trees are forced into a permanent lean, and the ebbing tide disappears beyond the horizon, about four miles away. When it returns, rushing in over the wide mudflat, shorebirds follow, thousands of them, appearing first as puffs of smoke in the distance, then in large flocks, rising and falling in smooth, sinuous curves. They alight on the mud, and I am surrounded by birds.

They are mostly Red Knots, sandpipers that have come to winter on this vast beach. Slightly larger than robins, Red Knots travel some 19,000 miles every year, sometimes flying for six or eight days at a stretch without stopping to rest or feed. Their marathon journey, from one end of the Earth to the other and back again, distinguishes the Red Knot as one of the avian kingdom’s most accomplished fliers. Ornithologists have long recognized the knot as sublime. Alexander Sprunt Jr., preeminent South Carolina ornithologist, writer, ardent conservationist, and, from 1935 to 1973, supervisor of the National Audubon Society’s southern sanctuaries, saw more than his share of charismatic birds, including colorful Carolina Parakeets and fabled Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. To Sprunt and his colleague E. Burnham Chamberlain, writing in the 1949 edition of South Carolina Bird Life, the small, less conspicuous knot nonetheless held a special place, representing “an untrammeled wildness and freedom that is equaled by few and surpassed by none.”

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Red knots at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Delaware Bay hosts the largest concentration of the rufa red knot subspecies during the spring, when knots on their marathon migrations stop to refuel and take advantage of the largest gathering of horseshoe crabs in the world. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Curious about how such small birds can manage such extraordinary journeys, I followed them—from the treacherous shoals along the Magellan Strait, to a crowded resort in Argentina, up along the East Coast of the United States, into the icy Arctic, and then back, along the muddy shores of James Bay, through the dense fog of Quebec’s Mingan Islands, and then into the bay behind my home in Massachusetts. I found them there one autumn day—young birds that a couple of months earlier had walked half a mile, perhaps a mile, from their nests to the sea, and then, inconceivably, begun their first long migration, along a route they’d never traveled, to a destination they’d never seen. The story—of their tenacity and the tenacity of the hundreds of people I met along the way dedicated to providing the birds safe passage—became my 2015 bookThe Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.


Just as the book was going to press, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rufa Red Knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the first U.S. bird listed explicitly because its existence is imperiled by global warming. The knot they describe, Calidris canutus rufa, is one of six subspecies of Red Knots worldwide, distinguished by its Eastern Seaboard migration. Since 2000 the rufa Red Knot’s population has declined by roughly 75 percent at key stopovers. Threats to the bird, according to the USFWS, are likely to put the rufa Red Knot “in danger of extinction in the next few decades.”

One might think a bird that each year flies the length of the globe and back—a bird that finds sustenance and shelter in places as widespread and diverse as the Jersey Shore, the Arctic Circle, and the Magellan Strait—might be immune to the warming planet; might, if one of its homes or stopovers becomes unsuitable, simply find another. It’s more complicated than that.

In 2014 the National Audubon Society’s science team published the results of a seven-year study showing how global warming might affect North America’s bird species in the coming decades. The Audubon Birds and Climate Change Report showed that of 588 North American bird species considered, 314 of them could lose more than half their range by 2080. That means that for these birds, the area with the climate conditions they need to survive will shrink or shift so dramatically that they’ll be left with less (often far less) than half of the suitable range that exists today. It’s an alarming prediction, particularly when there’s no guarantee the birds will find new habitat elsewhere.

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A red knot parent and chicks near Hudson Bay (northeastern Canada). The females generally depart a few days after the eggs hatch, leaving the males to tend the young until they’re old enough to fly. Fortunately, baby Red Knots—as is true with most other sandpipers—can forage for themselves as soon as their down is dry and they can walk, which happens within a few hours of hatching. Credit: Brad Winn, from Audubon website

Shorebirds spend their lives at the delicate places where sea meets land—one of the front lines of climate change—and are therefore particularly vulnerable. In 2014 scientists led by Michael Reed from Tufts University and Hector Galbraith, then at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, reported that global warming exacerbates the risk of extinction for nearly 90 percent of North American shorebirds. The team evaluated threats the birds may face in a warming world, including a shrinking tundra; rising seas; ocean acidification; increasingly stormy weather; and dependence on specialized environments, such as Delaware Bay. In their analysis, even at its lowest sensitivity, 20 populations of North American shorebirds, including the Red Knot, would fall into the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan’s highest-risk category—“highly imperiled.” As their world heats up, Red Knots are threatened almost everywhere along their flyway: The warming, acidic sea inhibits the growth of the shellfish the birds need to fuel their impressive migration; rising seas may flood their seaside homes; rising temperatures threaten to shrink their Arctic nesting grounds and expose them to more predators. No matter where they go, no matter how many new homes they might seek, Red Knots can’t escape the effects of global warming.

To power their long migrations, these tiny birds require phenomenal quantities of energy-rich food. Along the route, they gorge on tiny mussels and clams, horseshoe crab eggs, and sea worms, packing in energy for the flights ahead, burning it off on the wing, and then refueling again at the next stop. In Delaware Bay they nearly double their weight—a metabolic feat that would likely make any human attempting it seriously ill but that crowns knots as powerhouse long-distance fliers and one of the animal kingdom’s most rapid and efficient energy consumers. Ocean acidification, a largely invisible consequence of global warming, may soon compromise the quality of Red Knots’ food, if it hasn’t already.

Tagging red knots on Cape Cod. The yellow tag is a geo-locator; the lime green alphanumeric flag means it was banded in the U.S. Credit: USFWS

Tagging red knots on Cape Cod. The yellow tag is a geo-locator; the lime green alphanumeric flag means it was banded in the U.S. Credit: USFWS

As carbon dioxide emissions rise, the pH of seawater drops, and it becomes less saturated with aragonite, a mineral clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops require for building strong shells. In increasingly acidic seawater, these animals’ shells are smaller, thinner, and weaker, and their larvae grow more slowly, with fewer surviving to settle on the sea bottom. Mussels are unable to cling to their homes on rocky tidal flats. In a 2012 symposium, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research concluded with “high confidence” that mollusks are “one of the groups most sensitive to ocean acidification.” Ocean acidity is increasing rapidly—more than 10 times faster than at any time in the past 55 million years, and possibly at a rate unprecedented in the past 300 million years. Red Knots weren’t around then; they don’t benefit from an evolutionary history of adapting to such rapid changes in ocean chemistry and the problems it brings to the shellfish that, in most places along the flyway, are their primary source of food.

Finish reading Deborah’s story on Audubon’s website. 

Backyard Birding: Sharing the Beach with Shorebirds

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

Will you be at the beach this summer? Keep an eye out for breeding shorebirds.

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Piping plover and chicks (Credit: Kaiti Titherington/USFWS)

The beach is a fantastic place to be. All year round it is a fun and inspiring element of our landscape, and part of that enjoyment comes from being around distinctive coastal birds.

Most of us only go the beach in summer, when we can enjoy the weather and water to relax and have fun. Summer is also an important time for many shorebirds; it is when they come to Northeast beaches to breed.

The beach is a thin strip of naturally precarious habitat in a dynamic environment. It is subject to the power of waves and wind, and extremes of temperature. Despite these challenges, this is where beach-nesting shorebirds have successfully bred through time.

The increased use of beaches by humans has introduced a new variable. The Northeast becomes home to more people every year, and over time society has become more affluent and gained greater freedom to enjoy coastal areas. These patterns have resulted in greater impacts on coastal environments and coastal wildlife, and consequently we need to take actions to ensure that beaches remain a safe place for shorebirds.

Beachgoers can drastically reduce the breeding success of beach-nesting shorebirds. The eggs and chicks are well camouflaged and can unknowingly be crushed by people walking above the high tide line. Also, if adults are flushed from the nest, chicks and eggs can suffer heat stress without the protective shading offered by the parents, and unattended eggs and chicks can be destroyed and eaten by predators.

There are some great shorebird recovery success stories. In Massachusetts, targeted actions have seen piping plover populations bounce back dramatically in recent decades, and American oystercatcher populations are recovering impressively since returning to the Northeast in the last half century.

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American Oystercatcher chicks (Credit: Stephanie Koch/USFWS)

Some of this success is attributable to programs like the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative that increase the focus on shorebird conservation. For example, many of the contributing partners organize summer beach stewards who raise awareness of nesting shorebirds, educate people about them, monitor nests, and notify authorities if protective action is needed.

How You Can Help

There are things all beachgoers can do to minimize their impact on breeding shorebirds:

  • Have a carry-in carry-out policy: Trash left on beaches can attract nest predators.
  • Don’t feed gulls: While it may be fun and seems harmless, gulls can eat shorebird eggs and chicks.
  • Walk your dog on a leash: Dogs love to chase and catch wildlife, including shorebirds, and just the stress of being chased, especially repeatedly, can lead to eggs and chicks being abandoned.
  • Respect wildlife protection signs: Please keep out of posted nesting areas.
  • Be aware of wildlife: If birds are calling loudly around you, dive-bombing you, or feigning injury, there are probably nests nearby. Please back away.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can do is to recognize that shorebirds live and breed on the same beaches that people enjoy.

Summer is coming. Enjoy it, but please enjoy and respect the shorebirds also.

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Terns at sunset on Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS)