|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
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
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.
June 8, 2000