Hunting season, for many, begins this month, so there’s no better time to look at the history and use of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, or “duck stamp.”
The duck stamp is required by the federal government of the United States in order to hunt ducks, geese, and other migratory waterfowl. 98% of the proceeds from each stamp are used for conservation efforts through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. State governments also require stamps for bird hunting, as do many international governments.
In 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act to preserve wetland habitats for migratory waterfowl; however, this law did not include a permanent source of funding. On March 16, 1934, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt. The first annual duck stamps had a face value of $1 in 1934, increased to $2 in 1949, and again to $3 in 1959. By 1991, the stamps were $15 face value, and did not see another increase until the stamps rose to $25 in 2015. Most state stamps have a face value of $5, though some, like Louisiana’s non-resident duck stamp at $25, are much higher. Some Native American tribes issue stamps that allow hunting on their reservations (as long as the hunter also has the required federal stamp) which would otherwise be off-limits.
Duck stamps are usually issued by conservation or wildlife departments; in the United States, the stamps must be created by legislation in order for them to be a valid government issue. Like the funds from the federal stamps, money raised by state hunting stamps is earmarked for conservation, usually in very local efforts. Though many stamps are bought by hunters, some are purchased by collectors, and can carry a premium when bought this way; some stamps are even produced in limited collector editions. Several states issue different stamp sets for hunters and collectors, while others are simply defined by differing serial numbers.
One of the most collectable kinds of duck stamp is the Governor’s Edition. Several states issue these stamps as a way to bring in extra revenue; the stamps are usually printed in quantities fewer than 1,000, at face value of approximately $50. The state governor may even hand-sign some of the stamps for increased value, often up to twice the price of the unsigned stamps. These stamps are valid for hunting in the state of issue, but never used as such, as this would significantly lower the collectible value of the stamp.
Artist-signed stamps are an increasingly trendy way to collect duck stamps, and usually cost only a premium on top of the cost of a mint stamp. That cost may be increased if the artist for the stamp is now deceased; premiums may also be charged for stamps on which the artist has hand-drawn or painted a unique work of art on top of the stamp design. Living artists may be commissioned to draw such art, sometimes known as a “remarque,” or to add tribute art to a stamp drawn by a deceased artist. Other collectors prefer text stamps: stamps with printed text but no illustration of ducks or other creatures.
The initial duck stamp design was created by Jay “Ding” Darling in 1934; Darling was specifically asked to design the stamp by President Roosevelt. It shows two mallard ducks landing in a small pond. Other wildlife artists were asked to submit designs for subsequent stamps, and the first open-entry contest took place in 1949. 88 artists submitted designs that year, with the number increasing to 2.099 entries by 1981. Artist Maynard Reece is a five-time winner of the stamp design contest, taking the top place in 1948, 1951, 1959, 1969, and 1971. The judging panel for the contest is composed of bird, art, and philatelic authorities, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. The winners receive no prize or monetary compensation for their work, save for a pane of stamps with their design; however, the winners are permitted to sell prints of the design, which are highly prized by collectors.
In the 82 years since its creation, the duck stamp has been a phenomenal success. Sales of the stamps have resulted in more than 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat being conserved since 1934. Duck stamps are not only an excellent modern collectible, but a piece of history and an investment in the future of our spectacular wildlife.
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