duck stamp
Artist/conservationist Jay N. “Ding” Darling was selected by President Franklin Roosevelt to head the U.S. Biological Survey in 1934, the same year Darling designed the first federal duck stamp.

If you enjoy hunting ducks and geese, you probably recently purchased a 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.

The Beginning

America’s waterfowl were in trouble in the early 1930s. Loss of habitat, years of market hunting and a drought had devastated populations.

Fearing many waterfowl were near extinction, a group of conservationists, led by Jay N. “Ding” Darling, an avid duck hunter and 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. With his help, on March 16, 1934, Congress enacted 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. Revenue purchases wildlife habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System. This was the first dedicated source of funding for wetlands conservation.

The First Duck Stamp

Darling, a prominent conservationist, won two Pulitzer Prizes for his editorial cartoons, but he’s best remembered as the nation’s first duck-stamp artist. President Roosevelt asked Darling to design the stamp. Darling later wrote, “I took six sheets of cardboard and made six experimental sketches of what I thought a Duck Stamp might look like.” He then gave them to an assistant. When Darling inquired about the stamp’s progress 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.

That first year, 635,001 federal duck stamps were sold. In 1984, the 50th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Hunting Act, the 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. The sales of these two stamps make Darling’s mallard image one of the world’s most widely published and recognized examples of wildlife art.

duck stamp
Since the first duck stamp was printed in 1934, funds from the sale of the stamps have been used to purchase critical habitat for waterfowl that becomes part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

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.

Valuable First Stamp

Darling purchased the first stamp, signed it and gave it to postmaster W. Mooney. Mooney later sold his stamp collection to George Elam for $50. Elam then sold the duck stamp for $10,000 to Bob Dumaine, author of The Duck Stamp Story.

Dumaine offered the stamp to two dealers for $12,000. They passed, but that didn’t stop Dumaine, who 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 $275,000.

More About The Early Years

Hunters were not required to sign their duck stamps the first year of issue. In fact, it was illegal to deface the first stamp. Since 1935, however, a signature has been required so a 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 shot and if the hunter was a member of a hunting club. This was the government’s first attempt to estimate the nationwide waterfowl kill.

The second year of the federal duck stamp program accounted for the fewest sales: 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.

More Duck Stamp Facts

duck stamp
The 1975 federal duck stamp was the only one to feature a duck decoy. The canvasback decoy was painted by artist James Fisher.

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.

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

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 illustrated by James Fisher. Mr. Fisher had a fascination with old decoys and went to a Maryland decoy show in 1973. There he met Mr. R.G. Biddle III, a collector who let him borrow decoys for painting. Fish decided to paint a weathered old Mason canvasback drake 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.

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. 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. 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.