“The Wild Duck Chase” Reviewed by David Bruce Smith


There is one juried art show per year–administered by the United States Government–that is almost completely unknown, even though it is in its 79th year.

Martin J. Smith’s, The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, provides a panoramic—and generational–perspective of the 2010 Federal Duck Contest. And, according to some, it is the most effective and efficient wildlife conservation program in history:

“When Roosevelt signed the Duck Stamp Act on March 16, 1934, U.S. waterfowl populations were at or near an all-time low…” Because of that, he funded it with six million dollars, and purchased 400,000 acres of vulnerable habitat in Florida, Georgia, Oregon, California and Wyoming, to safeguard more than four hundred species.

The $1 Stamp was devised to perpetuate a cycle of income, and certify the licenses of all hunters 16 years and older; now, the price is $15.

With time, the Program has widened its arc to encompass “700 species of birds, 220 mammal species, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 200 species of fish…”

And, each year the organizers of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest select five varieties of waterfowl as its focus.

Hundreds of artists enter, and “fence” vigorously to win the prestigious competition. A first-place victory spins off into instant fame and financial success. The triumphant duck painting can be sold at a high price; guest appearances at art and conservation events flow; lucrative license agreements occur, and sometimes, commissions shake-out.

Formerly, this turned into a million dollars or more of artisan comfort, but “…Since record-high sales of nearly two and a half million duck stamps in 1971-1972, the number of stamps sold has been in almost steady decline. About a million fewer…were sold in 2010 than during the program’s heyday. And the U.S. Congress continues to move inexorably toward passing legislation that would expand an eight-state pilot program making electronic duck stamps available nationwide.”

With that, there are fewer hunters, less collectors, smaller amounts spent on habitat, and a new generation that has been oriented away from nature. Because of the downturn in enthusiasm, a Junior Duck Stamp Contest was formulated in 1993 with a motto meant to engage: “Let’s Go Outside!” along with a five thousand dollar scholarship to the first-place winner.

The Program’s predicament has also been exasperated by animosity between the hunters who are required to buy stamps, and the birders, who aren’t. According to Smith, “…one of the keys to the survival of the Federal Duck Stamp Program may be the seemingly impossible mission of uniting…behind a common cause. Together they can provide enough revenue to keep this…conservation effort going…”

If the discord within the groups is neutralized, the Armageddon-in-the-Distance, will be diluted.

The Wild Duck Chase:
Inside the Strange and Wonderful
World of the Federal Duck Stamp

By Martin J. Smith
262 pp. Walker & Company $25.00


Letters to Editor

  1. A self-sustained government program that has lasted for 79 years and running… I’m intrigued!

  2. Wow! Who knew? I bet another reason for potential demise of such important contests and conservation efforts is the endangered species of “mail.”
    So much of ours is sent electronically that I worry for the future of USPO, stamps, hand-written letters and the like. D: Any thoughts about the effects of LOVE stamps on artists, economy, us all? Xoxo

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