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Duck Stamp Revisions: Opinions Differ in the Birding Community–Voice Yours Today!

Photo composite: Christine Clayton

Photo composite: Christine Clayton

The American Birding Association strongly supports the United States National Wildlife Refuge system. It encourages birders to buy the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (aka, the “Duck Stamp”), a program that has an unmatched track record of conserving wildlife habitat through that system. We also support birders increasing and being recognized for their conservation contributions, which is why we have promoted the stamp for many years and began selling it directly in 2014.

Recently, a proposal to change the format of the the venerable Duck Stamp has been put forward. The proposed changes would require that artists include a non-game species on the stamp in addition to the traditional waterfowl. This is intended to draw attention to the many other, rarely acknowledged, species that benefit from the habitat acquisition and management of National Wildlife Refuge land that the Duck Stamp helps to fund.

The proposal has been met with mixed reactions from the hunting, birding, stamp collecting, and wildlife art communities. We encourage you to read through the proposal and comments. We especially encourage you to leave a comment of your own before the March 21st, midnight deadline.

On the surface, it’s hard for many birders to see how anyone would oppose such a measure. Many of us have been advocating for a better method for quantifying the impact of non-hunters on NWR funding for a long time. Whether it’s been in service of a new “Wildlife Stamp” specifically for non-consumptive users, or for a means of tallying birder purchases of the existing stamp (as through ABA), there is no question that we deserve to be acknowledged for our efforts alongside the substantial efforts of hunters and hunting organizations. Such a partnership could be productive in making collaborative decisions on issues of access and management.

Even more important, the bottom line of the program unquestionably ought to be the number of acres of habitat conserved, which is maximized by selling more stamps (and/or selling them at a higher price–there was a price hike from $15 to $25 just this year) . So will a second bird species sell more stamps? Many birders, including some very thoughtful ones, think it will.

As respondent BJ Padgett puts it:

Adding a migratory non-waterfowl to the Duck Stamp is a wonderful idea. Birders and other non-hunting nature lovers also contribute to the Duck Stamp program, and it’s appropriate that their interests should be acknowledged.

And ABA Board members and well-known birder Kenn Kaufman writes:

During the last 15 years I’ve put a lot of effort into convincing birders and other wildlife watchers to buy the Duck Stamp, and have had some success. I’m on the board of directors of the American Birding Association (ABA), and the ABA began promoting and selling the stamp to their members a couple of years ago. Here in northwestern Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory has been selling the Duck Stamp to birders for several years. With enough explanation, most birders readily see the connection between the stamp, habitat protection, and benefits for all bird species. But the inclusion of an additional, nongame bird on the stamp would make it much easier for us to make this case. And publicity around the new designs would help to capture the attention of the general public, adding to the potential new market for the stamp.

But the opinions of birders on this topic is not so homogeneous. Some are less enthusiastic, citing logistical and mission-creep issues and a lack of study of the likely impact of the change on overall sales. When you get to the hunters, artists, and stamp collectors, the feedback is nearly all negative. Many take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” approach, other cite a deep desire not to disrupt what they see as an almost sacrosanct tradition.

Logistically, the proposal would begin immediately, applying to the 2016 stamps. Such a drastic change is likely unfair to those artists who have already begun their work, complicating their present designs by requiring them to shoehorn in another species.

Second, this second bird needs to fit in a very small space. Art submitted to the Duck Stamp competition can be no more than 7″ x 10″, and the winner’s piece is then rendered on a stamp measuring 1.5″ x 2″. It is fair to assume that a non-game species, which would almost certainly not be the focal point, could potentially be lost on such a tiny image. Many people who support the stamp for its value as a piece of art might be less likely to purchase one where that art is less apparent.

Speaking to this, Kim Nisbett notes:

The actual duck stamp will suffer, since creating an excellent composition for such a small size is already a huge design challenge, and adding a species is completely counter to improving the design of the stamp. At the end of the day, an excellent stamp should be one of the top priorities of the duck stamp contest, as it will enhance every other goal of the program.

The out reach among wildlife artists will continue to diminish if this rule is enacted, because trying to fit both species in an already difficult design in very discouraging. No artist wants to start a painting that is slated to fail, or at best be an awkward design.

Along this same lines comes a view from the stamp-collecting community, represented by birder and collector Robert Rufe:

[M]y primary criticism of the proposal is the end of a tradition which will result in the cessation of purchases of the Duck Stamp by thousands of postage stamp collectors, a significant market that is probably not recognized by the Duck Stamp program administrators. As an aside – the 1959 stamp featuring a Labrador Retriever and the 1975 stamp featuring a Canvasback Decoy(!), have been the least favorite issues by stamp collectors.

More than that, however, people seem most concerned with the idea that such a change would represent a drastic shift away from a program that has been remarkably effective in its goal of raising money for conservation initiatives.

Robert Fink writes:

From the standpoint of a dealer whose job it is to sell the designs to the general public, adding a non-waterfowl bird in the design presents problems.

First, adding a bird which has no connection to hunting waterfowl serves no purpose. It’s trite. How do dealers sell their collectors a design which can only be made better by leaving out the mandatory grosbeak, woodpecker, or robin?

This gets to an often repeated point. To many, even with these proposed changes, the Duck Stamp is still a hunting stamp. This can clarify its purpose or symbolize its limitations, depending on how you feel about hunting. But the proposed solution of adding a second bird onto this existing stamp would seem to be one that appeals to neither. To hunters, you’re diluting the purpose of the existing stamp. To those adamantly opposed, it is simply lip service.

It’s important to note that everyone involved in this discussion is absolutely supportive of more money going to conservation, especially to the NWR system. We all appreciate the incredible work done in so many refuges, and the amazing birding opportunities to be had. Where we differ is in how precisely we can maximize those opportunities, and how we can proceed from here. The NWR system is clearly listening to birders, so the best thing we can do is to go make our voices heard. Comments are open until Monday at midnight.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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