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APS  Affiliate #210
APS Affiliate #210


All the Ducks That Are Fit to Print!

by Sarah K. Nathe

On the day after Christmas two years ago I drove up to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, a complex of six refuges about 50 miles north of Sacramento in California's Central Valley. I'd read in the San Francisco Chronicle that the snow geese and tundra swans had arrived, and I wanted to see what thousands of snow geese look like. They are breathtakingly beautiful, it turns out, especially as skeins come circling down out of the mauve late afternoon sky to settle into the marshes for the night. What they sound like, however, I can't begin to describe.

The winter tule fog, which can be very dense in the river bottoms, held off over the next two days and I saw waterfowl and upland birds in dizzying numbers and variety. The complex's roughly 53,000 acres serve as a resting and feeding area for nearly half the migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. That's a lot of birds for a weekend bird watcher like me, and I was kept very busy with the official bird checklist, my bird book and my binocs. I did manage, though, to make one other big discovery: the Sacramento NWR was established in 1937, and additional land has been added since then, through funds generated by the Federal Duck Stamp Program.

I had thought duck stamps were just pretty pieces of paper stuck on Uncle Norb's hunting license or collected by my friend, June, back in Minnesota, but there at the NWR I learned otherwise. An exhibit at the refuge headquarters noted that the Duck Stamp Program is one of the most successful conservation programs ever devised, obviously because it's built on the wisdom of providing something for nearly everyone--duck huggers, duck hunters, ducks, and collectors. Duck stamp sales have raised over $500 million to support the acquisition of more than 5 million acres of NWR lands since their inception in 1934.

If you aren't near a NWR right now, or can't afford to fly to California, a handsome new book will bring waterfowl into your living room, and help you comprehend the significance of duck stamps. The Duck Stamp Story: Art, Conservation, History, by Eric Jay Dolin and Bob Dumaine, has just been published by Krause Press. As the title indicates, the story is about ducks, stamps and art works, and the people who love them. It is told with incisive prose, high-quality graphics, and splendid color photos. The two co-authors are obviously right for the job: Dolin is a seasoned writer on environmental issues, and Dumaine is a widely published duck stamp expert.

In the first of three sections, the authors chronicle the conservation crises that led to the creation of the Duck Stamp Program. The wholesale slaughter of waterfowl and the simultaneous loss of habitat to agriculture and cities in the 1800s and early 1900s makes for pretty depressing reading, but it's alleviated by profiles of heroes like J.N. Darling and the pivotal roles they played in creating the program. We are reminded that habitat loss is still very much a threat in every state of the union, but, what with the federal program and hundreds of state, local and tribal duck stamp programs raising money, there is hope.

The section on stamps and stamp collecting is more interesting than I thought it was going to be. It begins appropriately with the first stamp issued in 1934 and the demand for it that has only grown over time. I was fascinated with the chapter on the Bureau of Printing and Engraving since I have always thought that engraving is a miraculous art; this account only supported my belief. It's great to be able to see the evolution of the art form as represented by the duck stamps. The ins and outs of duck stamp collecting are covered in fine detail and would equip any newcomer to get in there with the veterans and start trading. I was delighted with the chapter on mistakes and rarities, especially the references to stamps that misrepresented the way ducks fly, land, or live with each other.

The final section on artistry and marketing captures the dynamics of the annual contest, and presents some large and attractive reproductions of winning paintings. I want to interject here that the waterfowl illustrations in the book are larger and more precise than the photos or drawings in my Audubon or Peterson bird guides; thanks to The Duck Stamp Story, I am finally able to distinguish a greater scaup from a lesser scaup. In the chapter on artists and their art, I enjoyed meeting some of the prominent artists and I particularly liked the insert on the evolution of a duck stamp. The chapter on paintings, prints and their framing offers technical and aesthetic considerations I might not have thought of on my own.

Four appendices furnish useful additional information, especially for collectors: "Stamps and Stamp Statistics" is a chronological illustrated list of all duck stamps from 1934 to 1999. Three subsequent appendices catalogue duck stamp errors and varieties, duck stamp values, and duck stamp print values. My one cavil with the book is that there isn't also a list of all the National Wildlife Refuges that have been created and supported with duck stamp revenues. That would be appreciated by readers like me who pick up the book because they like ducks and swamps.

Reading The Duck Stamp Story was almost as good as being out in the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge with the geese, and not as noisy. A measure of its success is that it also brought me happily out of the marsh into studios and stamp shows, and introduced me to fine people and beautiful art. Were I a duck stamp collector, I would consider The Duck Stamp Story indispensable. Were I a duck, I would be flattered. As I am a duckwatcher, I appreciate it for its service to the Duck Stamp Program and can't help pointing out that part of the proceeds from the book will benefit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.

Sarah Nathe
Oakland, California
June 8, 2000

Sarah Nathe is a graduate of the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota with a degree in English, and the University of Colorado, Boulder with a Masters degree in English. She worked for the State of California for many years in public education for earthquakes, and currently is  at the University of California, Berkeley, managing a project to improve the resistance of the campus to the inevitable quake on the Hayward fault.

Order The Duck Stamp Story $29.95 for hardcover or $19.95 soft cover. 208 pages with over 200 color photos. Call (800) 231-5926, or order on line from Sam Houston Duck Company.


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