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Federal Introduction

Welcome to our first major expansion. This area of Waterfowl Stamps and More will be devoted to the Waterfowl part of our title. More specifically, to the beautiful, miniature works of art that have been created by this country's leading wildlife artists; have been produced (until very recently) by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing – the same federal agency that produces our paper currency; and which have been made available to hunters, stamp collectors, wildlife art enthusiasts and conservation minded philanthropists at post offices, annually, since 1934-35.

We are speaking of the federal waterfowl stamps, better known as duck stamps and occasionally referred to by the titles actually printed on the stamps, themselves; from 1934-35 through 1976-77, Migratory Bird Hunting Stamps and, since then, Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps (see Figures 1 and 2). The latter reflects the vital role these stamps have played in generating badly needed funds for waterfowl habitat conservation and restoration.



Figure 1. The 1934-35 Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp.


Figure 2. The 1977-78 issue. Note the title was changed to Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.



The federal waterfowl stamps are the most ubiquitous and well-known stamps in the fish and game hobby. They are also the most widely collected. While some collectors may be content to limit their pursuit to these seductive stamps, for others the federal waterfowl stamps serve as the gateway to a more advanced collection. The many possibilities include collecting waterfowl stamps that have been issued by other levels of government or collecting fish and game stamps in general.


Philatelic Definitions and Context

For those with a limited philatelic frame of reference, it may be useful to start with reviewing how the specialized collecting area of federal waterfowl stamps fits into the parent hobby of stamp collecting:


World Wide Stamps

   U.S. Stamps

      Revenue Stamps

         Fish and Game Stamps

            Waterfowl Stamps

               Federal Waterfowl Stamps


Although the first of their kind, the federal waterfowl stamps are now a subcategory of waterfowl stamps, in general. This collecting area includes the much larger number of waterfowl stamps that have been issued by state, local, military and tribal governments –  subsequent to those first issued by the federal government.

Many prospective collectors are surprised to find that state and local governments began issuing their own waterfowl stamps as far back as 1937 and 1941, respectively. These were non pictorial stamps whose sole purpose was to function as a licensing tool to help regulate waterfowl resources. In fact, state and local governments issued waterfowl stamps for decades prior to the first pictorial state stamp being issued by California in 1971.

The early non pictorial waterfowl stamps issued by Ohio for Pymatuning Lake; Marion County, Kansas for Marion County Lake; and Illinois and California for public hunting areas such as Rice Lake and Honey Lake are considered by many collectors to be classics or the real deal. This is primarily due to the fact that they were not issued with collectors in mind and, therefore, are pure. While not possessing the superficial beauty of pictorial waterfowl stamps, they all have fascinating history and often engaging stories behind them (see figures 3 and 4).



Figure 3. 1937 Ohio Pymatuning Hunting, the first stamp required by a state government to hunt waterfowl.


Figure 4. 1941 Marion County Water Fowl, the first stamp required by a local government to hunt waterfowl.



Many non pictorial waterfowl stamps are also legitimately scarce to rare. The rarity factor is important to many collectors as it introduces a challenge factor to the mix and the inclusion of such stamps makes it easier and more pleasant to sell the collection when the time comes. As a result, they are highly sought after by advanced collectors and also those choosing to spend money on their hobby for an extended period of time.

Taken together, the waterfowl stamps that have been issued by all the various levels of government may be seen to form a well rounded collection combining beauty, history and rarity. Moreover, such a collection tells the complete, interrelated and, therefore, more wholly meaningful waterfowl stamp story in the U.S.

In future expansions of this website, we intend to have separate areas devoted to each of these integral components. For now, we will start with the federal stamps; for these were not only the first waterfowl stamps  – but also the first fish and game stamps issued in the U.S.

The specialized area of waterfowl stamps is currently the largest subcategory of fish and game stamps. Those who collect fish and game stamps are also interested in stamps issued by any level of government to hunt, fish and trap for a wide variety of animals, birds and fish in the U.S. These include stamps required to hunt for big game, such as deer, elk and bear; stamps required to hunt for upland game, such as grouse, pheasant and quail and stamps required to fish for salmon or trout.

Fish and game stamps is the largest subcategory of revenue stamps. Similar to postage stamps, revenue stamps function as a receipt. While postage stamps serve as a receipt indicating the specified postage has been paid to cover the rate assigned to the delivery of a letter or parcel, revenue stamps serve as a receipt that shows a tax or fee has been collected. For this reason, revenue stamps are sometimes referred to as fiscal stamps.

Whereas postage stamps are intended to be affixed to a letter or package that is transported through the mail, revenue stamps (for the most part) are affixed to a document that has been issued by any level of government.

Fish and game stamps, including waterfowl stamps, are intended to be affixed to licenses or permits. For this reason, they are often referred to as fish and game license stamps. Fish and game stamps that remain affixed to the license or permit demonstrate the usage for which the stamp was originally intended. Such licenses are avidly sought by many collectors and exhibitors (see Figure 5). Exhibitors combine portions of their collection with their original research and display them at philatelic exhibitions.



Figure 5. 1948 Kansas Combination Resident Hunting and Fishing License with four fish and game stamps affixed: 1948 Marion County Duck; 1947-48 Kansas Quail; 1948-49 federal Migratory Bird Hunting and 1948-49 Marion County Fishing.



Federal waterfowl stamps are intended to be affixed to a license that initially conveys only general or basic hunting rights or, in some cases, hunting and fishing rights. The presence of any stamps indicates (to a game warden) that an additional fee has been paid. Therefore, a stamp conveys the right to hunt for an additional species not covered by the license alone – in this case, waterfowl. Starting with the second issue (1935-36), it has been required by law that the federal waterfowl stamps be affixed to a license or permit – and then signed across the face by the hunter.

This is the foundation for the elegant license and stamp system that was developed in the U.S. and which has subsequently been adopted by many other governments, worldwide. In the U.S., the federal stamps are most often found affixed to state licenses or permits. This is a result of the individual states having the right to license hunters.



There was a long period when waterfowl populations were quite abundant across large portions of North America. This lasted for millions of years. When humans entered North America and evolved into hunters and gatherers, waterfowl  – especially ducks – became a popular food source for the Native Americans.

Waterfowl populations remained in equilibrium due to the relatively low Native American population and the relatively primitive means by which they were able to harvest the birds and their eggs. Also, there is no evidence to support widespread waterfowl hunting on the part of native americans for anything other than subsistence – in other words, they did not kill waterfowl for recreation or sport.

The discovery that Native Americans were likely the first humans to utilize duck decoys – a practice commonly associated with non-native market hunting from the mid 19th Century to the turn of the 20th Century and then sport hunting since then – is best viewed within the context that Native American hunters devised duck decoys merely as a means to help ensure their very survival (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. Native American duck decoys, circa 400 BC – AD 100. Found in Lovelock Cave, Humboldt County, Nevada. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian.



When the first non-native hunters arrived in the new world, they were equipped with firearms. These would soon include smooth bore scatter guns or fowling pieces that fired a large number of small pellets called shot. However, until the middle part of the 1800s, the additional hunting pressure on North American waterfowl was primarily focussed on the birds within the Atlantic Flyway and could best be described as marginal in nature.

The "flyway concept" was introduced by Frederick C. Lincoln of the Bureau of Biological Survey, in 1935. As a result of extensive banding studies, Lincoln identified what he referred to as distinct "migration corridors" or "lanes of travel". Lincoln showed that ducks and geese strictly adhere to ancestral flight routes. This trait causes them to concentrate over specific regions of the continent as they migrate, as opposed to being more randomly dispersed. Lincoln identified four major regions of concentration and named them the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways.

Manifest Destiny (westward expansion) began in the mid 1800s and was hastened by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. This brought non-native hunters across the country in larger numbers – and resulted in increased waterfowl hunting pressure being spread across all four of the major flyways (see Figure 7).



Figure 7. The four major flyways identified by Lincoln.



The latter half of the 19th Century saw rapid advances in the shotgun and this, combined with accelerated westward expansion following the Civil War, was an ominous sign for North American waterfowl populations.

Anson and Daily patented the boxlock in 1875, which resulted in both more reliable and more affordable shotguns; Daniel Lefever introduced the first hammerless shotgun in 1878. He patented the first automatic hammerless shotgun in 1883 and John Browning, while working for Winchester Firearms, revolutionized shotguns with the Model 1887 Lever Action Repeating Shotgun. In 1893 Browning introduced the first pump action shotgun and, in 1900, he introduced the Browning Auto-5, the world's first semi-automatic shotgun (see Figure 8).



Figure 8. John Browning holding an AR-5.



In addition to facilitating the spread of non-native hunters equipped with shotguns across the continent, the expanding rail system combined with the development of commercial ice-making plants to boost commercial or market waterfowl hunting. Birds could then be shipped long distances with little risk of spoilage.

Market hunters often employed oversized fowling pieces to maximize their kill. These huge guns were capable of killing 50 or more ducks with one shot. The recoil was so great, they were mounted directly on small, low-lying boats that were commonly used for getting in close to waterfowl in and around the Chesapeake Bay. These boats were called punts and the fowling pieces became known as punt guns (see Figures 9 and 10).



Figure 9. The punt gun was basically an extremely large shotgun, used by commercial or "market" hunters to maximize their kill.



Figure 10. Sighting a punt gun.



Punt guns were first developed to meet the increasing demand for waterfowl in restaurants up and down the east coast in the early 1800s. Additional commercial demand for waterfowl arose in the mid 1800s when the use of their feathers for decoration on women's hats became fashionable. By this time, the large guns had started to take visible tolls on waterfowl populations in the Chesapeake Bay region.

In the late 1800s, an increasing numbers of immigrants created an even greater demand for food in restaurants. Therefore, market hunters continued to harvest obscene numbers of waterfowl (see Figure 11). Some states began to outlaw punt guns at this time. Rising immigration also contributed to a steady increase in the number of recreational or sport hunters, from coast to coast.



Figure 11. A market hunter. Photo Courtesy of Fermata, Inc.



As we have seen, these recreational hunters were armed with increasingly efficient shotguns. At this time, hunting regulations were generally lax, with long seasons typically lasting from four to six months and excessive bag limits being the rule. Overhunting, on the part of both professional and recreational hunters, resulted in a signifiant downturn in waterfowl populations through 1910.

Then, starting around 1910, a nationwide farming boom in the U.S. precipitated the drainage of huge tracts of wetlands and resulted in the destruction of many prime waterfowl breeding areas. Breeding grounds in the upper midwest were especially hard hit. This was arguably the most serious blow, yet, to diminishing waterfowl populations – as these areas produced the birds that were fed into the Central Flyway – the largest of the four flyways in the U.S.


Waterfowl Stamp Need and Purpose

By the beginning of the 20th Century, it was becoming clear that an inverse relationship existed between the sizes of the non-native human and waterfowl populations in North America. In other words, as the non-native human population was increasing – the waterfowl population was decreasing. The need for waterfowl restoration and conservation on the part of humans was now coming into focus.

With the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the federal government accepted responsibility for the protection of migratory waterfowl in the United States. In the 1920s, conservation leaders such as Senator Frederick C. Walcott   (R - Connecticut), promoted the idea of federal waterfowl management areas.

Like the federal refugees developed in the past, the primary purpose of these refuges would be to provide habitat, food and protection for breeding and migratory waterfowl. Unlike the federal refugees developed in the past, the areas envisioned by Walcott and others would serve society in multiple ways.

For example, it was proposed that portions of the areas could be operated as public hunting areas during appropriate times of the year. Although some might question the ethics in permitting hunting on a conservation area, it would actually be consistent with the best interest of waterfowl to have as much harvesting of the resource as possible take place in a highly regulated environment.

Perhaps more importantly, by increasing the the utility of conservation areas for a broader spectrum of the citizenry,   it would be easier to win support and secure funding. As predicted, the new waterfowl management area concept quickly received widespread support and funding became the next issue.

Many conservation leaders, including Walcott, favored the idea of a "national hunting stamp" which had originally been proposed by George A. Lawyer. Lawyer was employed by the Bureau of Biological Survey (now known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). He held the titles of inspector, Migratory Game Law from 1916 to 1918 and then Chief U.S. Game Warden from 1918 to 1926. In these roles, Lawyer traveled around the country gathering data on migratory birds (see Figure 12).



Figure 12. George A. Lawyer holding a confiscated punt gun. He is also holding a shotgun for scale. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.



In the early 1920s, Lawyer sketched a proposed design for the first federal hunting stamp that was heavily influenced by a pictorial California hunting license he was issued in 1919 (see Figures 13 an 14). Lawyer's stamp would serve three interrelated purposes: 1) provide funding to preserve and restore wetlands located throughout the four flyways 2) provide funding to implement the new federal federal refuge plan, in particular and 3) have the segment of the human population who stood to benefit the most from such programs – waterfowl hunters – foot the bill.



Figure 13. The California Non-Resident Hunting License issued to George Lawyer in 1919. Courtesy of Will and Abby Csaplar.



Figure 14. Lawyers original sketch for the first federal hunting hunting license (stamp). Shown courtesy of the Csaplars.



The national stamp idea, however, was stalled for over a decade when it encountered opposition from those who thought it would be infringing on the state's rights to license hunters.

In 1925 a committee was formed by state conservation leaders to look into an alternative to the hunting stamp. The committee recommended an excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Although receiving support from More Game Birds in America, the forerunner to Ducks Unlimited, the idea soon had to be set aside when Congress repealed all excise taxes.

As arguments over funding waged through the 1920s, the need for additional waterfowl areas became increasingly urgent. A decade of lower-than-normal rainfall was followed in the 1920s by the onset of a severe drought. Some of the most important breeding areas remaining in the U.S. went completely dry and waterfowl production was crippled.

Due, in large part, to the efforts of Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, a nationally known conservation legislator, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act was passed in 1929. Among his many important achievements, Norbeck is, perhaps, best known for Mount Rushmore. He is the one who brought artist and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the carver of Mount Rushmore to South Dakota and then he successfully persuaded Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide federal funding for the project. (see Figure 15).



Figure 15. Conservation champion Peter Norbeck.



The Migratory Bird Conservation Act act basically called for the federal government to live up to the responsibility it had accepted in 1918, in part by developing waterfowl management areas to offset the effects of drainage and drought on waterfowl habitat.

The devastating drought and the subsequent Dust Bowl lasted through the first half of the 1930s (see Figure 16).     A side effect of the drought was widespread botulism which was born in stagnant lakes and which resulted in the loss of additional hundreds of thousands of birds. Pressure to to secure funding for the waterfowl areas was mounting.



Figure 16. Photograph depicting dead waterfowl on the Great Plains, circa early 1930s.



Senator Walcott was instrumental in the formation of the Senate Special Committee on the Conservation of Wildlife Resources. But the committee still could not solve the funding stalemate in Congress. In 1934, President Roosevelt appointed a small group of influential, conservation-minded people to a new committee – The Committee for Wild Life Restoration. The committee consisted of Jay N. "Ding" Darling, Aldo Leopold and Thomas Beck.

Jay Darling was a multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who was deeply involved in conservation efforts throughout his career. He often used his cartoons to raise public awareness for conservation. His efforts eventually caught the attention of FDR (see Figures 17 and 18).



Figure 17. Jay N. "Ding" Darling shown at work in his studio.



Figure 18. One of Darling's best waterfowl conservation cartoons.



Aldo Leopold was a ground-breaking conservation management pioneer and he became known as the father of scientific game management. Leopold wrote the classic book Game Management, which subsequently became the bible of the game management profession (see Figure 19).



Figure 19. Aldo Leopold, the father of scientific game management.



Thomas Beck chaired the committee. Beck was the editor of Collier's Magazine and a close friend of FDR. He had previously held the position of Chairman of the Connecticut State Board of Fisheries and Game, where he sponsored a successful six-year plan plan for statewide wildlife conservation. Now Beck wished to do the same on a national level, "particularly on behalf of migratory game birds".

Beck desired to replace the Bureau of Biological Survey, which he saw as inadequate, with a new government agency that would oversee a massive (20-50 million dollar) program focussing on habitat acquisition, restoration and conservation – much of it for migratory waterfowl.

Darling and Leopold, on the other hand, argued the work could be accomplished by the current Bureau – as long as it received adequate funding. Darling and Leopold, once again, proposed a national migratory bird hunting stamp. Roosevelt had a good feeling about Darling and Leopold. Therefore, he supported them instead of his friend, Beck.

Roosevelt offered Darling the position of Director of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Darling accepted the position on a temporary basis. Together, the combination of Darling, Leopold and Roosevelt somehow created some bi-partisan magic at a very crucial time in waterfowl history – and the much anticipated waterfowl stamp finally became a reality. The landmark Bill passed through Congress on March 10, 1934.

On March 16, President Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act into Law. Darling, being an accomplished artist himself, created the artwork used for the vignette of the first stamp, which has become known to collectors as RW1 (for Revenue Waterfowl #1 in the Scott Specialized Stamp Catalogue). Darling was also the first person allowed to purchase some of the stamps at a special ceremony held on August 22, 1934. The stamps were placed on sale to general public on August 24 (see Figures 20, 21 and 22).



Figure 20. Top margin single of RW1, signed by artist Ding Darling.



Figure 21. One of the estimated 25 stamps Darling purchased on August 22, 1934, affixed to a Form 3333.



Figure 22. This Form 3333 bears an August 24, 1934 cancellation – the first day of issue.



Whereas in the past funds derived from state license sales were divided among many competing wildlife conservation needs, these new federal stamps allowed for 100% (currently 98%) of the fees collected to go directly to waterfowl conservation – specifically, the purchase of wetlands.

The Migratory Bird and Conservation Stamp Act specified that fees collected from federal waterfowl stamp sales be deposited into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. The funds are allocated at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.

One of Darling's greatest accomplishments while heading up the Bureau of Biological Survey was to appoint J. Clark Saylor II as the first Chief of the Bureau's Wildlife Refuge Program. Under Saylor's 30 year period of leadership, the number of refuges expanded tremendously - funded in large part by the revenue collected from federal waterfowl stamp sales.

Since the stamp program's inception in 1934, six million acres of waterfowl habitat have been acquired and over 300 national wildlife refuges have been created or expanded (at least one in every state) using "duck stamp revenues".

Today, waterfowl populations, themselves, are on the rebound. According to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Waterfowl population Status, in 2016 the total U.S. duck population was estimated was 48.4 million birds. This estimate is similar to the 2015 estimate and is 38% higher than the long-term average derived from data collected between 1955 and 2015. Of the 25 goose and swan populations surveyed, five showed significant positive trends and none showed significant negative trends.

This data strongly suggests that the federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp program, together with the Wildlife Refuge Program, have now started to mitigate the negative impact non-native human populations had on waterfowl populations in North America through the early part of the 20th Century.

Going forward, these programs will need to rely on the continued support of conservation-minded sportsmen, stamp collectors, wildlife art enthusiasts and philanthropists. One of the most rewarding things about our waterfowl hobby is, that through it – we can all help make a difference.

To purchase a current duck stamp and make a contribution, please click on the icon below. From all of us here at Waterfowl Stamps and More, we thank you for your generosity and hope you enjoy the new Federal area of our website and blog.


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