Hatching the Duck Stamp Idea
In 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (also known as the Norbeck-Anderson Act) into law. The act established the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to review and approve land acquisitions for much-needed waterfowl refuges. There was only one problem: Congress failed to provide a means to fund those acquisitions.
The dilemma was resolved five years later by League member Jay N. “Ding” Darling. A nationally syndicated and Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, Darling was also an avid hunter, angler, and advocate for wildlife conservation. He often used conservation themes in his influential cartoons, which resonated across the country. In 1934, despite his lack of experience in wildlife management, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Darling as director of the Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). It was during Darling’s short year-and- a-half in that position that he came up with the idea for the federal waterfowl stamp program. He also drew the first stamp: a male and female mallard, wings set, about to land in a marsh.
The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (as amended), commonly called the Duck Stamp Act, requires all waterfowl hunters age 16 and older to purchase a federal hunting stamp. For the first five years of the program, the stamp cost $1 – the same amount as the previously proposed federal hunting license, but a stamp was apparently more palatable to Congress. Since then, the price has gradually increased to its current rate of $25.
Of every dollar spent on a federal duck stamp, 98 cents is deposited into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to purchase vital habitat or acquire conservation easements for protection in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since 1934, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has spent more than $1.4 billion from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to permanently protect more than 5.7 million acres of waterfowl habitat. In 2016 alone, FWS spent $59 million from the Fund to add more than 6,000 acres of waterfowl habitat to national wildlife refuges and protect nearly 47,000 acres of Waterfowl Production Areas in the Prairie Pothole Region. More than 300 national wildlife refuges have been created or expanded using federal duck stamp dollars.
Today’s Duck Stamp
Federal duck stamps are issued annually on July 1 and are valid through June 30 the following year. In addition to waterfowl hunting, a federal duck stamp allows its owner free entry into national wildlife refuges that charge an entrance fee. The federal duck stamp is the longest running stamp with a single theme in the United States. It also inspired stamp programs in all 50 states, tribal governments, conservation groups, and several other countries – all with the purpose of protecting wetlands.
State duck stamps are issued annually by the wildlife departments in every state (though not all states print actual stamps any more). There’s no standard rate – the cost of a state duck stamp varies from $3 to $25. Some states issue low-priced resident stamps and raise the rate for nonresidents.
In addition to waterfowl hunters, birders have also become significant purchasers of duck stamps as way to support habitat conservation for all water birds, including bitterns, terns, stilts, avocets, eagles, and numerous songbirds. Some of the most popular birding destinations are national wildlife refuges. By no coincidence, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Florida, is one of those places, home to over 245 bird species.
The Next Generation
In April 2014, my husband Jack and I were married near Sanibel. My son Parker (then age 17) and Jack’s teenage children were there. As a family activity over the weekend, we went to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge to go bird watching.
“Who was Ding Darling?” asked Parker as we photographed an egret stalking an unseen fish in a grassy marsh.
“He invented the duck stamp,” I replied. “Do you remember your first duck stamp?”
Parker had shot his first duck eight years earlier.
“It had a white goose on it, a Ross’ goose,” he recalled. “I’ve still got it!”
Perhaps saving duck stamps runs in the family, but I would like to think it’s the passion for waterfowl hunting that’s hereditary. And the duck stamps that have allowed us to do it.