Collecting Waterfowl Stamps


Fish and game license stamps, as defined here, are those stamps required by federal, state, local or tribal law to be purchased by sportsmen and affixed to a license prior to fishing or hunting for various wildlife in the U.S. In most instances, such stamps convey additional rights that are not granted by a basic fishing or hunting license. A fee is generally paid by the sportsman to acquire these additional rights and the stamp serves as a receipt. For this reason, fish and game license stamps fall under the philatelic classification of revenue stamps. Once the stamps have been affixed to the license (and subsequently signed by the licensee in most cases) the license has been validated for harvesting the particular species involved — within the limitations established by a fish and game code.

Waterfowl stamps are a subcategory of fish and game license stamps that have been especially popular with stamp collectors. Much of this popularity is owing to the rich and colorful history of the federal duck stamp program in the U.S. However, the term "duck stamp" is not entirely accurate when referring to the federal stamps. In fact, the stamps convey the right to hunt for many different species of waterfowl, including ducks, and are therefore waterfowl stamps. This is to distinguish them from the relatively small number of true duck stamps that have been issued in this county. Among those governments to issue duck stamps are Marion County, Kansas and the States of California and Nevada.


Background Information and Historical Context

The federal waterfowl stamps arose out of the need to generate public awareness and finding for waterfowl conservation in the early part of the twentieth century. At this time, overhunting and a series of drought years had reduced North American waterfowl levels to dangerously low levels. One of the biggest needs was for waterfowl habitat—protected areas where the birds could breed and also rest during their rigorous migrations. On March 16, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act into law. The first federal waterfowl stamp was designed by J. N. "Ding" Darling, a nationally recognized cartoonist and a conservation leader. Proceeds from stamp sales went to preserve and restore waterfowl habitat, so that the survival of numerous waterfowl species could be ensured for future generations.

Among the initial federal stamps in the 1930s were those designed by famous wildlife artists such as Frank Benson, Richard Bishop and Roland Clark. Oversized and depicting engraved waterfowl scenes, these beautiful stamps attracted an immediate following among stamp collectors. The federal waterfowl stamp series has evolved into the longest running series of stamps ever issued by the U.S. government and continues to attract large numbers of new collectors to the hobby of fish and game stamp collecting today.

In addition to habitat, continuing research was necessary to collect data related to annual waterfowl production and harvest. This data plays a significant role in determining conservation policies aimed at keeping the various waterfowl populations in equilibrium. It was necessary to collect much of this data at the state and local level. Soon, state and local governments were issuing waterfowl stamps to generate funding for their own waterfowl conservation programs and also to help regulate the harvest within their own geographical areas. Ohio became the first state government to issue a waterfowl stamp in 1937, for Pymatuning Lake and Marion County, Kansas became the first local government in 1941.

Unlike the federal stamps, the early state and local issues were not pretty, usually featuring printed text in lieu of artwork. However, these stamps were attractive to collectors for other reasons. Foremost, they were an integral part of the waterfowl stamp story in the U.S. The history and stories behind the different state and local stamps was varied and frequently quite interesting. Also, the state and local stamps were issued in relatively small quantities solely to meet localized licensing demands, adding a challenge factor to the mix.

It was with the advent of state and local waterfowl stamps that "pioneer" collectors began to form specialized waterfowl stamp collections. Such collections then had much to offer: there was the beauty of the federal stamps; the engaging local history of the stamps issued by Marion County, Kansas; the political and social history connected with the stamps issued for public hunting grounds at Honey Lake, California and Rice Lake, Illinois and the great rarity and status of the legendary Pymatuning Lake, Ohio issues.

Starting in the late 1950s, another chapter in the U. S. waterfowl stamp story was written. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota became the first tribal government to issue fish and game license stamps, including a tribal game bird stamp that was required to hunt for waterfowl on their reservation. The fact that Native American artifacts could now be included in their collections intrigued pioneer waterfowl stamp collectors. The Indian reservation stamps helped to make the hobby even more interesting and added an element of social history. In 1971, California issued what is widely regarded as the first pictorial state waterfowl stamp. Other states followed and this stimulated a large increase in the number of waterfowl stamp collectors in the 1970s and 1980s.


Methods of Collecting

Today, waterfowl stamp collecting is a major hobby with thousands of enthusiasts worldwide. There are many options for the prospective new collector. Traditionally, collectors will start out with the federal stamps and then progress onto the state, local and tribal issues. However, one of the enjoyable things about collecting is the high degree of personal choice allowed. Some collectors may wish to collect only federal stamps, or only pictorial federal and state stamps. There has been a trend developing since the late 1980s, whereby comprehensive or "general" waterfowl stamp collections are once again in vogue. In this regard, the hobby has returned to its roots, with contemporary collectors retracing the path of the pioneers. General collectors attempt to add as many different waterfowl stamps to their collections as possible, whether they be federal, state, local or tribal. The common denominator is that the stamps were all required to hunt for waterfowl. This method of collecting may be compared to putting together a large jigsaw puzzle over time. As with a jig-saw puzzle, the order of acquisition of the "pieces" is not particularly important.

It is the general collection that chronicles the waterfowl stamp story in the U.S. in its entirety, and enables the collector to develop an understanding for the interrelated conservation efforts at each level of government. It allows the collector to experience the ultimate "thrill of the hunt" adventure, never knowing what the next addition will be. Also, it frees the collector from the anxiety sometimes associated with striving for completeness—for completeness is simply not possible. A lifetime of enjoyment is the reward for those who choose general waterfowl stamp collecting.

Finally, there is a growing segment of collectors that are specializing solely in the area covered in this catalog: non-pictorial state, local and tribal waterfowl stamps. Collectors are drawn to this area for many reasons. Some are drawn by the historical significance of the stamps—each of the first state, local, tribal and military waterfowl stamps in the U.S. were non-pictorial.

Many are drawn by the integrity of the stamps. Non-pictorial stamps were printed and issued with one purpose in mind—as an essential component of a system to license hunters. The stamp and license system has great importance for philatelists worldwide. Although it originated and was refined in the U.S., it has since been adopted by many other countries throughout the world. Since non-pictorial stamps were not made for collectors, in many cases all known examples have been removed from licenses—no unused copies exist. This level of credibility appeals to many people, especially in today's society.

Perhaps the most enticing aspect of collecting non-pictorial waterfowl stamps is that the area represents the ultimate challenge. The majority of the stamps are not readily available. Desire, intellectual resourcefulness and passionate searching become as important as financial considerations. Collectors who have dreamed of becoming a sleuth or private detective will enjoy this hobby.


How To Get Started

There are many avenues available to the prospective new collector. One is to establish a relationship with one or more stamp dealers who handle or specialize in fish and game stamps. Such dealers can be found at stamp shows and through advertisements placed in philatelic publications. Another way to get started is to make contact with collectors who share the same interest. This can be accomplished by placing a classified ad in The American Revenuer, the journal for the American Revenue Association, the State Revenue Newsletter, the newsletter for the State Revenue Society or The American Philatelist, the journal for the American Philatelic Society. Collectors and dealers that specialize in fish and game stamps may also be found on the Internet and frequently list items on Ebay.

Perhaps the best way to get started—and the most rewarding—is the grass roots approach. Start asking all of your waterfowl hunting friends and relatives if they saved their old licenses. You will be surprised to find that many people initially save their licenses as souvenirs and then lose interest in keeping them over the years. If they can find them, they might be willing to give them to you or else sell them for a nominal fee. Ask current hunters to save their licenses in the future. Garage sales, flea markets, antique shops and estate sales are all good possibilities for locating licenses bearing fish and game stamps, including waterfowl stamps. If you should encounter fishing or other kinds of game stamps, by all means do not pass them up. You may someday find that your interests have broadened to include them. If not, you can always use them to trade for waterfowl stamps.