Duck Stamps


"Ding Darling" | The Duck Stamp Program

Picking a Duck Stamp | Printing | Federal Duck Stamps Housed at the Smithsonian

Reproduction of the Federal Duck Stamp

Duck Stamp Story

The story of the Duck Stamp is inseparable from that of waterfowl in the United States. Once the North American continent teemed with wild ducks, geese, swans, brants and other water birds. Native American Indians and early Europeans settlers hunted the plentiful birds, taking only what they needed to feed themselves and their families.

Times have changed, however. The expanding U.S. population has meant trouble for waterfowl and other wildlife. People have leveled forests, plowed prairies, dammed rivers and, most importantly, drained wetlands to make way for man's houses, factories, roads, farms, and shopping centers. Millions of acres of pristine habitat that waterfowl need to survive have been lost.

The decline of waterfowl was accentuated during the 1800's and early this century by overeager hunters and a commercial demand for meat and feathers. Market hunters decimated great flocks and some individual species were so reduced in numbers as to be in danger of extinction.

Compounding these man-made problems, periodic drought dried up the prairie potholes, northern bogs and southern swamps used by waterfowl for food and habitat. The infamous "dust bowl" of the 1930's, in particular, left many formerly lush wetlands dry and lifeless.

By the late 1920's a number of American conservationists, hunters, and government officials had become alarmed at the prospect of losing some of our waterfowl species. The first positive step towards preventing that was passage of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act in 1929. It authorized the Department of the Agriculture to acquire wetlands and to preserve them as waterfowl habitat. The law also established a commission of Federal and State officials to evaluate land for possible acquisition.

"Ding Darling"

The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 was the first step in securing waterfowl habitat but it provided no permanent source of money with which to buy and preserve land for waterfowl. That omission was soon corrected by Jay N. Darling, a nationally known political cartoonist for the Des Moines Register. Also a noted hunter and wildlife conservationist, "Ding" Darling had often put his artistic talents into biting cartoons depicting the destruction of the nation's waterfowl and their habitats.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had appointed Darling in 1934 as chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, a predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In that position, Darling was instrumental in the conception and development of a stamp to be bought by all waterfowl hunters that would generate funds to pay for acquiring and preserving habitat for ducks, geese and swans.

On March 16, 1934, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act. Popularly known as the Duck Stamp Act, it required all waterfowl hunters 16 years or older to buy a stamp annually. The revenue generated was earmarked for the Department of the Agriculture, and then five years later transferred the authority to the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy or lease waterfowl sanctuaries.

The Duck Stamp Program

In the years since its enactment, the Federal Duck Stamp Program has become one of the most popular and successful conservation programs ever initiated. Some 635,000 hunters paid $1.00 each for the first stamps, which went on sale August 22, 1934. Since then, the price has gradually risen to the current $15.00 and the number of stamps bought climbed to a peak of 2.4 million in 1970-71. Today, some 1.5 million stamps are sold each year.

Not only waterfowl hunters buy Duck Stamps; they have become popular with stamp collectors as well. A collector who had bought each stamp the year it was issued would have paid a total of $304 by 1996. That investment would now be worth well over $5,000. Stamps issued before 1941 are exceedingly rare since the law originally specified that unsold stamps were to be destroyed the following year. Although the majority of excess stamps are still destroyed annually, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Federal Duck Stamp Program, as well as the U.S. Postal Service, continue to sell each year's stamp for 3 years.

More importantly, as of 1995, Federal Duck Stamps have generated $501 million that has been used to preserve 4,389,792.86 acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States. Many of the more than 510 national wildlife refuges have been paid for all or in part by Duck Stamp money.

But waterfowl are not the only wildlife to benefit from Federal Duck Stamps. Numerous other birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians have similarly prospered because of habitat protection made possible by the program. Further, an estimated one third of the nation's endangered and threatened species find food or shelter in refuges preserved by Duck Stamp funds.

Not only wildlife, but people, too, have benefitted from the Federal Duck Stamp Program. Hunters are ensured birds for their bag, and other outdoor enthusiasts gain places to hike, bird watch or merely visit. Moreover, the protected wetlands help dissipate storms, purify water supplies, store flood water, nourish fish hatchlings important for sport and commercial fishermen.

Picking a Duck Stamp

The first Federal Duck Stamp, designed by "Ding" Darling himself at President Roosevelt's request, depicts two mallards about to land on a marsh pond. In subsequent years, noted wildlife artists were asked to submit designs. The first contest was opened in 1949 to any U.S. artist who wished to enter. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife press release dated January 18, 1950 states that this was the first open national competition. There were 88 design entries submitted in the first competition by 65 artists. The number of entries rose to 2,099 in 1981 in the only art competition of its kind sponsored by the U.S. Government. To select each year's design, a panel of noted art, waterfowl, and philatelic authorities are appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Winners receive no compensation for the work, except a pane of their stamps. Winning artist may sell prints of their designs, which are eagerly sought by hunters, conservationists, and art collectors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mails contest regulations to interested artists each spring. All entries must be postmarked no later than September 15. Artists may choose their own medium and designs may be in black-and-white or full color, and must measure 10" wide by 7" high.


After the winning design has been selected, the artwork is submitted to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) for production of the stamp. A security document designer at BEP prepares a model, combining the artwork, title, and denomination. BEP experts determine what portions of the stamps will be reproduced by the intaglio process, how the colors of the remainder of the image will be separated, and what printing methods and equipment will yield the best reproduction of the artwork.

After the model is approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a single subject master steel die of the intaglio image is hand engraved. A steel transfer roll is made from the master die and the image is transferred repeatedly to make the intaglio printing sleeve. The engraver also prepares a separate single subject die for each color appearing in the final print. Offset lithographic printing plates are prepared from these hand separations.

Through the 1958-59 issue the intaglio printing was completed on single color flatbed presses. From the 1959-60 issue through 1986-87 issue, intaglio printing was completed on a rotary sheet fed press that has a capability of printing up to three intaglio colors from a single plate, the offset colors were printed on a sheet fed offset press. From the 1987-88 issue to the present, all printing is completed on a web fed press. Offset, intaglio and back printing are done in one operation on a combination offset-intaglio press that can print up to six colors offset, three colors intaglio and one color flexo.

The paper used through the 1953-54 issue was ungummed, and was wet prior to intaglio printing. The paper used in later issues was pregummed with a dextrin adhesive and printed dry. For the 1987-88 issue, a whiter, pigment coated pregummed paper was issued to improve the vibrancy of color and sharpness of the image.

Beginning with the 1946-47 issue, the plates were laid out with central vertical and horizontal gutters, dividing the 112 subjects per sheet into four panes of 28 stamps. This permitted complete perforation of the stamps on all four edges of the stamps on all four edges of each pane. The sheets were cut into panes along the center lines of the gutters. Formerly, there were no gutters, and the 10 stamps adjacent to the cut lines on each pane had non-perforated, straight edges.

When intaglio printing was moved from the flatbed to the rotary presses in 1959, the sheet size was increased to 120 subjects. Stamps are now issued in panes of 30 instead of 28.

The stamp designs are 1.26 vertical by 1.82 inches horizontal. The overall size from perforation to perforation is 1.41 inches to 1.96 inches. The stamps are perforated 11 x 11 which means there are 11 perforations per every 20 millimeters.

For the first time, beginning with the 1987-88 issue, the stamps were perforated on a web offline perforator, which results in a perfect center of "bull's eye" hole where the corners of four stamps intersect.

Federal Duck Stamps Housed at the Smithsonian

In March of 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transferred its complete set of the annual series to the Smithsonian Institution where the collection is housed in the National Postal Museum.

Included in the collection is a complete set of die proofs. At transfer, the official collection consisted of 21 panes of 28 stamps each, dating from the first issue through 1954-55. Under a current agreement between USFWS and the Smithsonian, a sheet, a pane, and die proof of each issue is added to the collection. Those wishing to study the collection of Federal Duck Stamps can do so by contacting the National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave, NE, Washington, D.C. 20560.

Reproduction of the Federal Duck Stamp

Until 1958 it was illegal to reproduce a picture of the actual stamps. But in September of that year, Public Law 85-921 amended the United States code to permit black-and- white illustrations of revenue stamps: "for philatelic, numismatic, educational, historical, or noteworthy purposes in articles books, journals, newspapers, or albums ..." In 1984 amendments to the Migratory Bird Conservation Act authorized the color and black- and-white reproduction of the stamp. Any individual or organization who chooses to reproduce the Federal Duck Stamp on a product must receive approval from the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service in the form of a license agreement and must pay a royalty for each unit of product sold. The image of the Federal Duck Stamp on any product must be less than three-fourths or greater than one and one-half the size of the actual Federal Duck Stamp. These size requirements hold true for reproducing the Federal duck Stamp in journals, books, newspapers, etc.; however, permission is not required on these instances. The revenue received from royalties must go directly into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, after deducting expenses for marketing.

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