No real game birds had come, just three coots that passed low over the marsh as they headed toward the oak ridge at its edge. The sun was all light and no heat, a cold January sun. Remnants of morning fog hugged the low places among the tall, brown grasses like patches of lace. It was a fine morning. My grandfather had taken our small boat and had gone back to the ridge to look for deer sign. An old friend who'd been with us on many a shoot hunkered down with me in a tiny blind woven from dried willow and oak saplings, bulrushes, grasses and pieces of dark twine. The old man sipped coffee slowly: I watched the sky, clutching my shotgun.
"Look at these here," whispered the old man, holding out an ancient brown wallet, its leather worn and cracked. With the relish of someone showing off photographs of his wife and children, he began displaying his collection of duck stamps. He smiled as he flipped through them.
"Ain't they somethin'," he said, more to himself than to me, pausing at each stamp he came to, looking at it for long moments, almost as though he were seeing it for the first time. His gray-blue eyes shone. The stamps clearly meant more to him than just an assemblage of old hunting licenses. They seemed to be a record of the old man's life, each stamp a story, a winter in the marsh he so loved, a season of ducks hunted, talked about, admired.
"Nineteen thirty-four," he said. "Darling's mallards. A good year. So many big greenheads I thought the sky itself would turn green. Got my Winchester that year. It is a fine gun, one that has spent the years with me.
"Nineteen fifty-six," he said. "Bierly's mergansers. Good gumbo. Fine cold mornings. Ducks as thick as robins in a bitter pecan tree. Fell asleep in my blind that January and missed some of the best huntin' of the year.
"Nineteen fifty-nine," he said. "That would've been Reece's beautiful black Lab with the mallard tucked gently in her mouth. I recall that Ruth, my dog, died that year. Not far from here, in the winter marsh, ducks overhead. The way it should be for a duck dog."
The old man talked on and I let go of my shotgun, fished out my wallet and looked at the bright new duck stamp pressed in plastic: 1963. Bierly's brant. A good year, I said to myself. Cold mornings. The sky a chilly blue. The marsh. The new shotgun. The whistle of wood ducks. And the old man.
This year the 50th anniversary of the duck stamp is being celebrated. In the 1930s the nation faced the loss of millions of acres of irreplaceable wetlands, prime waterfowl habitat, the result of a disastrous drought that had begun in 1929. The situation worsened, peaking in 1934 and continuing for another four years. Something had to be done. The idea of a national revenue stamp, to be used to raise money for purchasing and preserving waterfowl wetlands, had been around for some time, championed by a small but determined group of men, including Ray Holland, one of the best-known outdoor writers of his day, who later became editor of Field & Stream magazine; George Lawyer of the U.S. Biological Survey, forerunner of the Fish and Wildlife Service; and Jay N. (Ding) Darling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the Des Moines Register, a skilled and much respected outdoorsman and founder of what would eventually become the National Wildlife Federation. The efforts of these men and others and the continued deterioration of waterfowl habitat throughout North America led Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act on March 16, 1934. It required every waterfowl hunter 16 or older to buy, sign and carry with him a federal duck stamp while in the field.
Revenue generated by stamp sales was to be used for the purchase of unspoiled wetlands. Darling designed the first stamp, a pair of mallards settling down on a marsh, which sold for a dollar. By the end of 1934,635,001 stamps had been sold. Sales topped a million by 1938, three million by 1970.
Alan Levitt, public affairs officer for the Department of the Interior, is the coordinator of the 50th anniversary duck stamp program. Duck stamps take up virtually all his time, but Levitt never tires of talking about the program and its success. This year, in particular, he anticipates great interest in the stamps on the part of the public. The stamps, he says, are the "oldest and most successful of the federal government's wildlife programs. And they really work. We're going to make sure people realize that."
The stamps have gradually increased in price, reaching the current level of $7.50 in 1979. All of the money, except for 21 cents a stamp, which goes to the post office for handling sales, is used for the purchase of wetlands. To date, almost 90 million duck stamps have been sold, making possible the creation of 186 national wildlife refuges and a hundred waterfowl production areas—in all, a total of 3½ million acres of wetlands bought and protected.
Of course, these days the appeal of the duck stamp has stretched far beyond the world of waterfowl hunters. Stamp collectors, conservationists and other lovers of wildlife now account for 9% of the stamps sold. The stamp has come out of the marsh and found its way into the living room, the art gallery and the corporate boardroom.
This is a recent development. Duck stamps did not in fact become serious collectible art until 1970, when the stamps, which since 1934 had been printed in black and white, were issued in full color. It was also in 1970 that Ed Bierly, the winner of that year's design competition, decided to publish an edition of a thousand full-color prints of his winning painting of Ross's geese. With color the stamps had become more accurate, not to mention more attractive and more valuable. Duck stamps quickly became big business.
Since 1949, the stamp's design has been chosen in an annual competition open to all American artists. Before that, artists had been commissioned to design each year's stamps. By the early '70s the competition had become the most lucrative of its kind in the U.S. The winning artist receives as his prize only a single sheet of stamps signed by the Secretary of the Interior, valued at perhaps $300, but, far more important, he's given the right to reproduce and sell his design without limitation.
Bill Webster is the founder and president of Wild Wings, considered by many outdoorsmen to be the finest wildlife art publishing house in the country. While Webster has been handling the duck stamp prints professionally as an art dealer since the late 1960s, he began collecting the stamps in the 1940s and the prints in the '50s. He has known all but six of the stamp artists personally, and Wild Wings has handled the production of several of the print designs as well as the sale of all of them.
"Duck stamps," Webster says, "have done more for wildlife and sporting art than anything else. The beauty of the stamps and prints has led to a far greater appreciation of all wildlife art and artists. The market for this art, which was initially relatively small and limited almost exclusively to outdoorsmen, has widened tremendously over the years."
Webster foresees continuing strong interest in duck stamp prints. First-issue prints that sold for $135 or a" 15 during the early years today command as much as $135. In 1969, a limited edition of 750 prints was published of that year's stamp. By contrast, more than 24,000 prints of the 1983 stamp, two pintails by Phil Scholer, were produced, and because this year marks the stamp's 50th anniversary, Webster expects that even more prints will be issued to meet public demand. "This may be the finest year wildlife art has ever had," he says.
Even though they're generally bought because of their artistic appeal, Webster acknowledges that the prints have proved to be an excellent investment. Maynard Reece is one of the country's most prolific wildlife artists and is the only five-time winner of the duck stamp competition. His painting of a cinnamon teal was the winner for '71. The prints were hand-colored by Reece's family and sold for $75. Today Reece's '71 prints bring $5,000. A print of Lynn Bogue Hunt's green-winged teals, the 1939 winner, now sells for more than $6,000; Alderson Magee's Canadian geese (1976) go for $900; David Maass's beautiful wood ducks (1974) are now worth $1,000 a print. Because of the rarity of Frank Benson's 1935 print of canvasbacks, now valued at $7,000, there are perhaps no more than 55 complete sets of duck stamp prints. Each set is worth between $70,000 and $110,000, depending on the condition and quality of the prints.
After 1970, if not already a recognized artist, the winner of the duck stamp competition quickly became one; if not already wealthy, he had the opportunity to become rich; if he wasn't already free to paint full time, winning made that possible. John S. Wilson was a sign painter from Watertown, S. Dak. and a self-taught wildlife artist of exceptional talent. He decided to take a chance and enter one of his paintings—of ruddy ducks—in the duck stamp competition for 1979. He won and went on to publish 16,000 prints, which sold for more than $1 million. Wilson doesn't paint signs anymore. Martin Murk was a commercial artist working mostly on agricultural advertising and farm catalogs. He had entered the duck stamp competition twice unsuccessfully. Then, in 1977, in his third attempt, he entered a painting of Ross's geese and won over 300 other entrants. He sold more than 5,000 prints for nearly half a million dollars. Murk no longer spends his time drawing chickens and cows. Bierly has won the competition three times. In 1956 his painting of American mergansers won, and he sold 250 prints for $15 apiece. In 1963 he won again and was able to sell 550 prints of his winning brant design. They brought a modest $5,000. Bierly won again in 1969, with Ross's geese. He published his prints in color this time, sold 1,000 of them at $50 apiece and retired early from his job with the National Park Service to paint full time.
An artist wishing to enter the duck stamp competition must submit a 5" X 7" painting in any medium. In 1982, a $20 entry fee was instituted in an effort to reduce the number of frivolous entries. "People send us all kinds of things," says Levitt. "We've had drawings of Daffy and Donald Duck, duck bones on a plate, ducks wearing hunting clothes and carrying a shotgun, even a trumpeter swan playing, of course, a trumpet."
Despite the entry fee, the number of entrants has soared, to 2,000 a year nowadays. Designs are reviewed by a panel of five judges—including waterfowl experts and art experts. The judging takes place in the auditorium of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. on two days in November. In reaching a decision, the judges look for beauty, anatomical accuracy and appropriateness of habitat. The designs must depict the birds in their natural setting, as the man in the field, a hunter or a birdwatcher, would expect to find them.
With few exceptions, the duck stamp competition has been remarkably free of both error and scandal. Before 1975 the entries went through a good deal of pre-screening. No longer. In that year there was an accusation, never substantiated, that the competition had been fixed. The Fish and Wildlife Service had received a letter saying James Fisher would be the winner. And when Fisher's canvasback decoy did indeed win (the only representation of an inanimate duck ever to be so honored), hanky-panky was suspected by some. A lengthy investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, it was decided that, beginning with the next year's contest, all entries would be judged publicly.
There was some dismay that Reece's winning 1959 design showed a Labrador retriever with a dead mallard in its mouth (the only dead duck ever to win). That fuss, however, has long since died down, and today a print of that stamp is valued at $700. The 1960-61 winner, a pair of redhead ducks and four ducklings, caused some chuckles among knowledgeable students of waterfowl, who pointed out that among redheads, the drake leaves the hen immediately after the eggs have hatched and is never around to accompany its family on outings.
Last Nov. 9 the audience in the auditorium at Interior was hushed, waiting for the judges to announce their decision. The design that would represent the program in 1984, on its 50th anniversary, had been selected. It turned out to be a strikingly beautiful pair of widgeons, painted by Bill Morris, a soft-spoken 39-year-old from Mobile, Ala.
"I'd seen the final 135," Morris says, "and the final 20. I knew what I was up against. Talent can only take you so far, then all the talent is equal. On any given November day, with a different panel of judges, any of those gorgeous paintings could have won. All were brilliant, expertly crafted. I'm truly fortunate."
Morris, who worked as an engineer for an oil company to support his family and his art, has been painting seriously for six years. Prints of his first works, a 1978 portrait of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and a 1979 painting of a scene from that season's Sugar Bowl game between Penn State and the University of Alabama, sold out in two days. From those, he netted over $10,000. Worried, though, that his paintings might be appreciated more for their subjects than their artistry, he tried his hand at less sentimental subjects. He painted a watercolor scene of a shrimp boat along Alabama's Gulf coast. He issued 1,000 prints of the work, which were priced at $30 each; all were sold. Influenced by the work of the gifted wildlife artist Mario Fernandez, Morris then attempted a painting of a wood duck. That, too, was immediately successful. Soon, he "knew wildlife art was where I belonged, wanted to stay." In 1983 he entered and won Alabama's duck stamp contest with a painting of buffleheads. It was then that he decided he would enter the federal competition.
"I entered the contest," says Morris, "not only to win, but also because I very much believe in the duck stamp program. In the past, wildlife art has been looked down on. The duck stamp has changed this attitude, has brought respect and understanding. More important, the stamp continues to help save waterfowl habitats. One of the great consequences of the federal stamp is that now more and more states are adopting their own duck stamp programs, which just adds more money for waterfowl protection. We must understand that we, all of us, have put our waterfowl in a vise. The duck stamps and prints and all that is attached to these programs cannot stop this vise from pinching in, cannot stop the steady, heartbreaking loss of the birds' habitat, but it's the only thing I see that can at least keep the jaws of the vise apart, maybe even slow it down."
Morris knows that winning the duck stamp competition is going to make him rich. The stamp itself will be sold at all first- and second-class post offices, starting on July 1. What with the hoopla planned for this anniversary year—including a special commemorative postal stamp of Darling's first duck stamp, a presidential proclamation saluting the duck stamp, and so on—Morris expects to bring out 20,000 to 25,000 prints. The proceeds will enable Morris to paint full time, which is exactly what he intends to do. "Winning the duck stamp competition isn't the peak of my career," he says, "but rather a stepping-stone. I will not get complacent. The most important painting I'll paint isn't the duck stamp, but the one I do next."
The duck stamp has come to be identified with good art, in some cases very good art. Significantly, though, the program has worked for 50 years exactly as intended. Without much notice or acclaim, the money it has raised has been used to save precious waterfowl and their habitat, not just for the hunter or the conservationist but for every one of us and for generations to come. Perhaps Levitt put it best when he said he believes the duck stamp is "the most direct contribution a citizen can make to wildlife conservation."
For the old man, with his walletful of worn stamps, who sat in that duck blind years ago, for anyone who has ever been stirred by a wedge of ducks flying low in a gray winter sky, buying the duck stamp is an act of faith, an expression of hope that next year the ducks will come again, bringing the wind alive with the sound of their beating wings.