My Dad bought me my first federal duck stamp in 1960 at the tender age of 16. Every so often, thumbing through my old faded hunting licenses, I come across it and admire its beauty. Back then, I never gave much thought to who painted the colorful image or how it was chosen as the badge of honor for hunters across the country.

A little over 2 million stamps were sold at $2 each in 1960. Since the inception of the stamp in 1934 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, all waterfowl hunters 16 years of age and over must annually purchase and carry a stamp.

The first stamp was designed by J.N. “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist from Des Moines, Iowa, who at that time was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as director of the Bureau of Biological Survey, the predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1949, the first Federal Duck Stamp Art Competition was held at the Interior Department in Washington, with a panel of judges selecting an image of two trumpeter swans by Walter Weber from among 88 entries.

Each year thereafter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsors the only federally mandated art competition. Wildlife artists, both professional and amateur, all across the United States vie for the coveted title of federal duck stamp artist. The wildlife artist who wins this competition knows that his or her career and fortunes will take wing.

Recently, I had the opportunity to view the contest. This was made possible when for the first time in the program's 71-year history the contest was held outside of Washington.

With the assistance of Ducks Unlimited and the Greater Memphis Arts Council, the art competition moved to Memphis this year. There were 234 entries: three from Mississippi, two from Arkansas, seven from Tennessee, and none from Louisiana.

The paintings were judged not only for artistic quality and flair, but also for their biological accuracy and for their projected face value in a postage-stamp format.

A postal inspector was on site with a reducing lends to give an expert opinion on how each painting would look as a stamp. A wildlife biologist was present to see to it that the winning piece depicted waterfowl as Mother Nature intended. They have to be anatomically and biologically perfect.

An important development in the duck stamp area is taking place in Washington, where Congress is considering a bill to allow duck stamps to be issued electronically. Ron Kind (Wisconsin) and Charles Pickering (Mississippi) introduced H.R. 1494 on in April.

The bill proposes to authorize a three-year pilot program under which 15 states would be authorized by the secretary of the Interior to issue “electronic” duck stamps. Such “stamps” would be sold through automated means on states' licensing Web sites and through special sales terminals in retail outlets authorized by the states.

Though not explicitly stated in the bill, the ostensible benefit of the program to the public is to facilitate the collection of federal duck stamp fees from hunters who may not have been able to obtain one from normal sales points, such as post offices.

Approximately 98 cents of every duck stamp dollar goes directly into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to purchase wetlands and wildlife habitat for inclusion into the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since 1934, 120.8 million duck stamps have been purchased nationwide, raising $696.3 million for habitat. However, adjusted for inflation the amount raised is $1.9 billion. From the proceeds from the sale of the stamps, more than 5.2 million acres of wetlands have been protected.

Little wonder the Federal Duck Stamp Program has been called one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated.

The purchase of a stamp provides an opportunity for every U.S. citizen to take a stand in the preservation of our natural heritage. All of us, working together, can and have made a difference.


Wayne Capooth — outdoorsman, writer, and physician — has hunted extensively in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas for 50 years and has written four books. On the Internet, go to www.waterfowling.org.