It’s said one strategy for accomplishing big things is to start with one small change. The Federal Duck Stamp program is an ongoing example of this theory in action.

Duck Stamps came into being in 1934 and grew out of the public’s increasing alarm over the loss of wetlands and the decimation of species of birds, fish and mammals that relied on them, particularly migratory waterfowl.

In the little more than 300 years that had elapsed between early European colonization of North America and the Great Depression, the continent had gone from teeming with wildlife on land, underwater and in the air to several species teetering on the brink of extinction.

Unregulated sport, bounty and even fashion hunting (birds that were killed for their plumage to supply the garment industry, for instance) were partly to blame. Population growth also resulted in drainage of millions of acres of wetlands habitat to make room for booming numbers of people. Catastrophic weather events during the Dust Bowl years only exacerbated the problem.

Contrary to popular belief, conservation of wetlands isn’t just an issue for naturalists or outdoor sportsmen. Wetlands also help maintain ground water supplies, filter pollutants and protect shorelines from erosion, benefitting all neighboring human populations.

Amid growing outcry from the public, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, requiring all waterfowl hunters over the age of 16 to purchase and carry a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, annually. Funds from the stamp, today known simply as the Federal Duck Stamp, were earmarked for the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund which buys or leases wetlands and wildlife habitat for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The first Federal Duck Stamp was a brush-and-ink drawing of mallards landing on the water’s surface, designed by Jay N. “Ding” Darling a popular cartoonist and conservationist of his day, whose idea it was to raise conservation funds through the sale of stamps. For the next 16 years, noted wildlife artists were invited to submit designs, but in 1949 the selection process shifted to a national art contest format. Sixty-five artists submitted 88 design entries that first year, won by Walter Weber’s drawing of trumpeter swans that became the 1950-51 stamp. To this day, the contest remains open to any artist 18 or older who is a U.S. citizen.

The first stamp cost all of a dollar in 1934 and the program sold 635,001 stamps. In 1949 the price doubled and Weber’s inaugural contest winner sold 1.9 million stamps. Two unique contest winners include Iowan Maynard Reece’s 1959 drawing of national champion Labrador retriever King Buck with a mallard in his mouth, the only stamp to feature a creature other than waterfowl in the design. Another anomaly is 1975’s winning effort by James P. Fisher of Pennsylvania, which featured a weathered canvasback duck decoy as its focal point.

In 1984, Congress amended the Duck Stamp Act to allow licensed reproduction of the Federal Duck Stamp on products manufactured and sold in the private sector, thus raising additional conservation funds. In 1989, the Junior Duck Stamp Program was conceived, combining conservation education and an arts program for children Kindergarten through 12th grade. One component of the program is for children to paint or draw a duck and top art advances through state and national judging to crown a Junior Duck Stamp.

Throughout its evolution, the Federal Duck Stamp program has proven to be one of the most effective conservation initiatives in history. About 98 cents of every dollar raised goes to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, amounting to more than $800 million since 1934. In turn, that money has protected more than 5.7 million acres of habitat nationwide, incorporating those acres into the National Wildlife Refuge System.

As of September 2015, Arkansas’ share of refuge areas totaled about 282,000 acres, roughly 86,000 of which were purchased or leased through with federal dollars. Those refuge areas include Bald Knob, Big Lake, Cache River, Dale Bumpers White River, Holla Bend, Overflow and Wapanocca.

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the first price increase for the Federal Duck Stamp in more than 20 years, bringing the cost to $25 beginning in 2015-2016. The increase ensures raising revenue sufficient to protect an estimated 17,000 additional acres of habitat every year.

After 82 years, the Federal Duck Stamp program is still going strong thanks to its multifaceted appeal. Anyone can buy a stamp, hunter or not, and they serve as an annual “pass” to national wildlife refuges. Over the years, stamps have become prized by stamp collectors, too. While recently-issued stamps have little or no collectible value, old stamps can command thousands depending on condition.

Most of all, the Federal Duck Stamp program provides ordinary citizens an effective, accessible means of contributing to the protection of wetlands and conserving wildlife habitat for generations to come.


1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, creating the Federal Duck Stamp. Cartoonist and conservationist Jay N. “Ding” Darling provides the first artwork, a brush-and-ink drawing of mallards.
1949 The Federal Duck Stamp artist selection process shifts to a competition rather than an invitation. Walter Weber’s drawing of trumpeter swans beats out 88 other entries from 65 artists. Stamp price doubles to two dollars.
1959 Maynard Reese’s drawing of champion Labrador retriever King Buck carrying a mallard becomes the only stamp artwork to feature an animal other than a waterfowl.
1975 The winning artwork, by Pennsylvanian James P. Fisher, technically depicts a waterfowl, a canvasback decoy, as its focal point.
1984 Congress amends the Federal Duck Stamp program, raising additional funds by allowing stamp reproductions on products manufactured and sold in the private sector.
1989 The Junior Duck Stamp Program is initiated to provide a combination of art and conservation education to children from Kindergarten to 12th grade.
2014 President Barack Obama signs first stamp price increase in more than 20 years, raising the cost to $25, helping to expand the acreage of protected lands by 17,000.

By the Numbers

1 Dollar price of the first Duck Stamps sold in 1934
16 Minimum age required to purchase and carry a Federal Duck Stamp when the program was begun
18 Minimum age for artists to enter the Federal Duck Stamp competition
25 Dollar price of a Federal Duck Stamp today
65 Artists who entered the first Federal Duck Stamp competition in 1949
88 Pieces of artwork submitted to the 1949 stamp competition
98 Cents per dollar raised that go to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund
5.7 Million acres of habitat protected nationwide thanks to Duck Stamp revenues