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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.
Nate Swick

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  • Chris Hill

    I’m a birder and I don’t want a non-duck on the duck stamp. I think the examples shown in the illustration are horrible (sorry!). But why not have two options in a given year – one version of the stamp with a duck, one with a non-game species? Wouldn’t that achieve the goals of the proposal and make more people happy?

    • Liz Deluna Gordon

      Chris, the illustrations were tongue and cheek. She did a good job. But I feel for the artists most.

  • Chad Witko

    The duck stamp program is one of the most successful in the history of conservation and I think it’s short-sighted to think it can be improved by simply adding a non-game species. There’s a lot of history and legacy with the duck stamp. It’s iconic- leave it as it is.

    I think a second and better option would be to create another stamp for non-game species and have that money go elsewhere into another program. Diversify conservation efforts whenever possible.

  • Joan Czapalay

    I came to birding and conservation from a rural hunting culture, and through the years I have supported Ducks Unlimited, as well as many nature conservation organizations. The work that DU has done for habitat conservation has been enormous. The Duck Stamp represents the preservation of wetlands and wild spaces for more than ducks. Yet it is the duck stamp which unites hunters and naturalists in our appreciation of the out doors. I no longer hunt, but will always suppot the Duck Stamp and all that it represents. Let us not dilute the message – the web is interconnected. Keep the Duck Stamp as is, and keep supporting Nature Canada, Audubon, ABA, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Life International, Nature Conservancy, BSC and other conservation organizations.

  • Cliff Hawley

    Give us a different stamp for non-hunters and leave the Duck Stamp as it is. I would love to see the drop off in Duck Stamp purchases when the non hunters move to buying the conservation stamp. It would really show the extent to which birders and others interested in conservation have been propping up Duck Stamp sales. I also agree that the stamp would be cluttered with having another species on the stamp.

  • Mike Patterson

    Wow, I was going to suggest a separate stamp for non-game folks and four people got here ahead of me and all beat me to it. What do you think that means?

  • Liz Deluna Gordon

    I asked this year’s Duck Stamp artist Jennifer Miller on the World Girl Birders FB group what she thought about the secondary species from an artist’s point of view. I think it is good to have her input here and she gave me permission to post this comment she made.

    Jennifer Miller:
    I’m so excited to see that you are interested!!

    I’m not against this idea, but the way it is being pushed is very worrisome. The timeline is bad… if this goes through for the contest this year, artists will have very little time to make their painting and enter it in time. The time to iron out the wrinkles and so forth is minimal. If it goes forward, I’d far prefer that they aim for 2017 instead of this year’s contest.
    The other problem, and one I have heard from almost every artist that enters, is fitting an appropriate bird in the composition to scale with the waterfowl (the waterfowl is to be painted as large as possible, so that it represents well when reduced to a stamp). This would work in some situations, but many companion species would be very hard to see when reduced to a stamp size. The rules as currently written are very vague (which may sponsor creativity, but it also is going to create a nightmare for artists and judges if they are not cleared up a bit).
    What do you think of the idea of including other species next to the stamp, on the full color dollar-bill-size sheet that the adhesive stamp comes on? Bird species could be painted much larger in this space and would be displayed in full color on the same sheet that the stamp comes on. Like this, but with more focus on other species:

    I would love to open this conversation with birders and hear ideas on how to compromise on this issue so that the stamp can be enjoyed by all, and the program kept successful to keep money flowing into our National Wildlife Refuge system!

  • Carrie McLaughlin

    These are my submitted comments to the NWR folks:

    As a Texas Master Naturalist and Audubon Master Birder, and a supporter
    of hunting, fishing, and the duck stamp, I think it would be a serious
    mistake to disturb this profitable tradition. Instead, we need to look
    very seriously at a perfectly acceptable and common sense alternate
    outlet for wildlife lovers who are not hunters or fishermen. Please see
    this link for a succinct explanation that does better than I can at
    articulating this position:

    program like the wildlife conservation stamp would take off like a house
    afire, and would be wildly successful from the get-go. I can tell you
    right now that the many, many uninformed folks who are opposed to
    hunting and fishing will buy this alternative stamp in a heartbeat out
    of pure zealotry and a long pent-up need to beat sportsmen at their own
    game and “win for wildlife”. And THAT will then immediately and
    necessarily up the ante from the duck stamp folks, too. 🙂 Some healthy
    competition with the dollars to see who has the most influence is
    nothing but a win for the refuge system, too.

    Richard Coniff just
    wrote this article on the same subject,
    and it’s fast and furiously making the rounds at TPWD. It would
    behoove you all to pay close attention. Nix the changes in the duck
    stamp. Create and promote the wildlife conservation stamp. Double your
    profits. Strengthen the refuge system. Win, win, win…

    Carrie McLaughlin

  • Robert Lesino

    I am not in favor of this change.

  • Mary Ann Good

    It surprises me that this blog didn’t mention the idea mentioned in the above comments, and apparently already fairly advanced, of creating a new wildlife conservation stamp program for non-consumptive NWF users like us birders to support. I had not heard of this idea and think it’s the win-win alternative all around. (The blog Carrie McLaughlin links in her comment is convincing.) Wouldn’t having discussed this alternative give readers an important factor in deciding which side (yes or no to the proposal) to be on? I feel that the concerns with adding a non-waterfowl species to the duck stamp are valid and that there is a better option for non-consumptive NWF users to support, therefore I will vote no.

    • Jay Bird

      No surprise since since ABA has a financial interest in keeping the status quo.

      • That’s not accurate. First, I do mention the idea of the “second stamp” in this post. Second, there are many in the organization who would be happy to see such an effort come to fruition. And third, the ABA does not see any financial benefit to selling the Duck Stamp. We sell the stamp at cost.

    • The “second-stamp” idea is one that has been kicked around for a while (I mention it briefly in the post). Speaking for myself, and not as an ABA representative, it is my preferred option. I know that there are others in the organization who feel the same way. For whatever reason it has always been a non-starter with FWS, however.

      It has naturally come up in response to this proposal and maybe it will finally be seen as a good option. At least, I’m surprised they couldn’t throw it together as a one-off for the MBTA anniversary, in addition to the Duck Stamp, just to gauge response. That feels like a missed opportunity to me.

  • Jackie A.

    I agree, a second stamp for Birders and wildlife enthusiast to purchase that would help conserve habitat is the best way to go. Personally, I cannot bring myself to purchase a Duck Stamp because of the nature of its purchase, even though it protects habitat, too. I will definitely purchase a stamp that protects birds, wildlife and their habitats, without needing to kill them.

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