A federal program started during the Depression to save America's dwindling waterfowl nesting spaces is being recognized by the Smithsonian.
"Artistic License: The Duck Stamp Story" at the National Postal Museum looks at the 62-year history of federal migratory bird hunting and conservation stamps. The exhibit, which opened in June, will be a permanent fixture at the 3-year-old museum.
"Duck stamps" aren't valid for postage. Every hunter over the age of 16 is required to buy one annually in order to hunt waterfowl in the U.S. Since the stamps were first issued in 1934, nearly half a billion dollars has been raised by the program. Almost 98 percent of that revenue has gone toward protecting existing nesting areas and buying additional acreage.
Duck stamps were the brainchild of J.N. "Ding" Darling (1876-1962), a journalist, political cartoonist and ardent conservationist. Darling convinced Franklin Roosevelt to start a conservation program, and he was designer of the first federal duck stamp.
Issued Aug. 22, 1934, it featured two alighting mallards and sold for $1. The current stamp, released last month and valid through mid-1997, was designed by Wilhelm Goebel of New Jersey. It sells for $15.
The conservation program is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of the Interior. The stamps, about five million each year, are produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
While required of anyone wanting to hunt fowl, the stamps are also prized by many stamp collectors for their beauty and scarcity. In addition to sales at federal and state wildlife refuges, duck stamps are available at many post offices.
Since 1949, the fish and wildlife service has held an annual contest to pick the design for the next year's stamp. Competition is fierce; artists do not get royalties -- their reward is just a single sheet of the stamps -- but do have the ability to sell prints of their artwork. Revenue from those sales can reach staggering proportions.
A panel of five distinguished people -- a conservationist, artist, hunter, philatelist (stamp collector) and wildlife writer -- select each year's winner. Artist Maynard Reece became a duck stamp legend, winning the design competition five times. He was responsible for one of the most unusual of all duck stamps: his 1959-1960 design featured a Labrador retriever carrying a mallard in its mouth.
A separate competition is held among schoolchildren to select the year's junior duck stamp design. Clark Weaver, a 19-year-old from Harrisburg, Pa., won the 1996 competition and received a college scholarship.
Seeing the success of the federal program, most states now also issue stamps for wildlife conservation, requiring anyone who wants to hunt fowl within their borders to buy one.
More than 70 artifacts are on display at the National Postal Museum. Among them are Darling's original etching for the first stamp, a cover with a duck stamp flown aboard the Graf Zeppelin and several printing errors.