The duck stamp story

Courtesy Keith Sutton

If you enjoy hunting ducks, geese and other migratory waterfowl, you probably recently purchased a federal and state duck stamp. But how much do you really know about duck stamps, their history and the people who created them? Probably less than you think. Here are some interesting facts sure to entertain and enlighten you.

The Beginning

America's waterfowl were in deep trouble in the early 1930s. Loss of crucial nesting, breeding and wintering habitat, combined with the after-effects of years of unrestricted market hunting and a lingering drought, had devastated waterfowl populations across the continent.

Fearing that many waterfowl species were near extinction, a group of dedicated conservationists, led by Jay N. "Ding" Darling (photo, right), an avid duck hunter and nationally famous editorial cartoonist with the Des Moines Register, began looking at ways to provide money for habitat protection and restoration. Darling was appointed in early 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt to head the U.S. Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Darling and others recognized that a steady stream of revenue was needed to begin to reverse the decline in waterfowl populations. With their help, on March 16, 1934, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed into law the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act. Popularly known as the Duck Stamp Act, this legislation requires all waterfowl hunters 16 years and older to possess a valid federal duck stamp. The generated revenue is used to purchase wetlands and other wildlife habitat for inclusion into the National Wildlife Refuge System. This was the first dedicated source of funding for wetlands conservation in this country and probably the world.

The First Duck Stamp

Ding Darling won two Pulitzer Prizes for his nationally syndicated editorial cartoons and is recognized worldwide as a prominent conservationist, but he'll probably always be best remembered as the nation's first duck stamp artist. President Roosevelt requested that he design the stamp.

Darling later wrote, "I took six sheets of cardboard [cut from stiffeners on shirt hangers in his office] and made six experimental sketches of what I thought a Duck Stamp might look like."

He then passed them on to an assistant. When Darling inquired about progress on the duck stamps a few days later, he was told one had been selected, and the stamp's engraving was underway.

"Every time I look at that proof design of the first Duck Stamp I still want to [re]do it," Darling wrote.

Darling was a cartoonist, not a wildlife painter. Engravers refined his rough sketch of a pair of mallards landing in a marsh, but it remained remarkably true to the original, including the birds' somewhat cartoonish bills. That first year, 635,001 federal duck stamps were sold, and in 1984, the 50th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Hunting Act, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative reprint of Darling's 1934 stamp design. More than 123,575,000 of these 20-cent (then first-class) stamps were sold. Taken together, the sales of these two stamps make Darling's mallard image one of the most widely published and recognized examples of wildlife art in the world.

Darling not only designed the first duck stamp, he purchased the first one as well. The stamp was sold to him by 3rd Assistant Postmaster General C. B. Eilenberger on August 22, 1934.

Darling signed that first stamp then gave it to Washington postmaster W. Mooney. Years later, Mooney sold his stamp collection to a man named George Elam for $50. Elam, in turn, later sold the stamp collection, but he kept the signed duck stamp. Some years later he sold the stamp for $10,000 to Bob Dumaine, author of The Duck Stamp Story (a must-read for duck-stamp collectors). But wait, it gets better!

Dumaine then offered the stamp to two dealers for $12,000. They passed, but that didn't stop Dumaine who subsequently found the top seven stamp collectors in the U.S. and offered it to them. Mrs. Jeanette Rudy of Nashville, Tenn. bought the stamp for a whopping $275,000.

More About The Early Years

Hunters were not required to sign their duck stamps the first year of issue. In fact, it actually was illegal to deface the first stamp. Since 1935, however, a signature has been required so the same stamp cannot be used by more than one hunter.

In 1934, a hunter purchasing a duck stamp was required to answer a short questionnaire asking the number of days he hunted the previous season, in what states, the number of waterfowl he shot and whether or not the hunter was a member of a hunting club. It was the government's first attempt to gauge hunting pressure and estimate the nationwide waterfowl kill.

The second year of the federal duck stamp program accounted for the fewest sales during any year of its history: 448,204. Sales peaked at almost 2.5 million in 1971-72. Recently, annual sales have been around 1.6 million.

Cost of the 1934 federal duck stamp was $1. The price increased to $2 in 1949, $3 in 1959, $5 in 1972, $7.50 in 1979, $10 in 1987, $12.50 in 1989 and its current $15 cost in 1991.

During the early years, engravers often took liberties in refining or enhancing duck stamp designs, such as adding backgrounds to the artwork. For example, on Frank Benson's black-and-white wash of canvasbacks landing in a marsh for the 1935 stamp, engravers added a boat, blind and hunters.

Stamps issued before 1941 are somewhat rare because the law originally specified that unsold stamps were to be destroyed the following year. Stamps are now available for three years after printing.

More Duck Stamp Facts

Since 1934, more than 119 million federal duck stamps have been sold. Proceeds produced more than $700 million dollars used to purchase more than 5 million acres of habitat.

Mallards and canvasbacks have been featured on federal duck stamps on more occasions than any other species—five times each. Cans appeared in 1935, 1965, 1975 (decoy), 1982, and 1993, while mallards took center stage in 1934, 1959, 1961, 1980, and 1995.

The black Labrador retriever King Buck was the featured subject on the 1959 federal duck stamp, the only time a dog has appeared in this role.

In 1946, the words "It is unlawful to hunt waterfowl unless you sign your name in ink across the face of the stamp" first appeared on the back of the federal duck stamp.

1952 was the first year the name of the species featured in the artwork was on the stamp.

1970 was the first year colored artwork was allowed in the federal duck stamp competition and the first year a stamp was issued in full color (Edward Bierly's Ross' geese). In earlier years, limited color was added on stamps, but the original artwork was black-and-white.

The 1975 duck stamp featured a canvasback decoy by James Fisher. Mr. Fisher had a fascination with old decoys and went to a decoy show in Elkton, Maryland in 1973. It was there he met Mr. R.G. Biddle III, a collector who offered to let him borrow decoys from his collection for painting.

A weathered old Mason canvasback drake attracted Mr. Fisher in particular, and he decided to paint it for his first and only entry in the annual Duck Stamp contest. This was the only stamp to depict a duck decoy. Rules subsequently changed to require living waterfowl be featured.

The 1976 duck stamp, which featured Alderson Magee's scratchboard rendering of a pair of Canada geese with goslings, was the last stamp printed in black-and-white.

In 1977, the official name of the federal duck stamp was changed from Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp to Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp to encourage nonhunters to contribute to waterfowl habitat acquisition and maintenance.
The self-adhesive federal duck stamp was introduced July 1, 1998.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started a three-year pilot program allowing the state fish and wildlife management agencies of Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Texas and Wisconsin, to sell stamps electronically through their individual automated licensing systems, providing a special receipt as proof of purchase.

Governor's Editions have been issued by several state agencies as a means of raising additional income. These stamps are printed in small quantities, most fewer than 1,000. They have a face value of approximately $50, and are imprinted with the name of the state governor. New Hampshire's John Sununu was the first governor to hand-sign limited-edition state duck stamps—400 stamps in 1987 that sold for $50 each.

Besides serving as a hunting license and conservation tool, a current federal duck stamp also serves as an entrance pass for national wildlife refuges where admission is normally charged.

More than 9.13 million federal duck stamps have been sold in Minnesota since 1934, more than any other state. Other states in the top five in sales are California (8.18 million), Texas (7.59 million), Wisconsin (6.78 million) and Louisiana (5.72 million). The state with the fewest sales? Hawaii with sales of only 8,752.

The United States is not the only country that issues duck stamps. Argentina, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom and Venezuela are among the foreign countries that also have issued duck stamps.

California became the first state to issue a pictorial waterfowl stamp in 1971.

South Dakota's Crow Creek Sioux became the first tribal government to issue pictorial waterfowl stamps in 1989.