Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why Birders Buy the Duck Stamp

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: A big event is coming to northwest Ohio at the end of September, and local birders are excited about it.

That in itself is not unusual. Northwest Ohio is no stranger to birding events. One of the largest and most important bird festivals on the continent, The Biggest Week In American Birding, makes a huge impact here every May. Another notable festival, the Midwest Birding Symposium, is held here in fall every other year. But the event in late September isn’t a birding festival. It’s the contest to choose the artwork for next year’s Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp—better known as the Duck Stamp.

The Duck Stamp program dates to 1934, a time when waterfowl populations in North America were in serious trouble because of habitat loss. The federal wildlife agencies needed a way to raise money to purchase or restore wetland habitats. By producing the stamp and requiring hunters to buy it, they were able to immediately start raising funds to protect habitat for nesting, wintering, and migratory stopovers for waterfowl. The program has been a spectacular success, having raised many millions of dollars and having led to the protection of over 5.3 million acres of quality habitat.
The first Duck Stamp, from 1934
At first, artists supplied each year’s stamp design by invitation. Starting in 1949, the stamp design has been chosen by a contest each year. The winning artist is not paid for the artwork, but the prestige of winning can provide a huge boost to any wildlife artist’s career, so hundreds enter every year. The contest is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and judged by five independent experts appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Some talented artists have won the contest more than once, but being a judge is a coveted, once-in-a-lifetime honor.

Who buys the stamp? Waterfowl hunters are required to purchase one—and I think most would do so willingly, because they believe in supporting the resource. Many stamp collectors also buy these little works of art every year, adding them to their collections. And many birders also buy the stamp. I’ve been buying it for many years now. But why?

Why do birders buy the stamp? Because we like ducks too, and we recognize that the stamp supports many kinds of wildlife. Wetlands for ducks are also ideal habitats for rails, gallinules, bitterns, grebes, terns, various marsh-loving wrens and sparrows, and many other birds.
White Ibises (juvenile and adult): they're not ducks, but they have benefited greatly from the habitat protection made possible by Duck Stamp sales.
But proceeds from stamp sales don’t just buy duck habitat. This money goes into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF), and then it is used to add to the National Wildlife Refuge System, through either purchase or lease of land. Consider these popular birding refuges, and the percentage of their total area paid for with MBCF money:

Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware  95%
Forsythe NWR (Brigantine), New Jersey  84%
Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico  99%
Pea Island NWR, North Carolina  99%
Ottawa NWR, Ohio  86%
Anahuac NWR, Texas  87%
Santa Ana NWR, Texas  94%

Birders who travel will know that all these refuges support many kinds of birds besides ducks. Santa Ana NWR, for example, does have a couple of small lakes that host a few hundred ducks at some seasons, but most of the refuge is subtropical woodland, home to Green Jays, Hook-billed Kites, and other specialty birds of the border region. Ottawa NWR, near my home in Ohio, does host large numbers of waterfowl, but it’s also prime habitat for Bald Eagles, and its woodlands swarm with warblers and other migratory songbirds in spring. Birders and wildlife-watchers get far more use out of these refuges than hunters do.
A Cape May Warbler, migrating north in spring toward its summer home in the Canadian spruce forests, pauses at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio. About 86 percent of the habitat on the Ottawa refuge was purchased with Duck Stamp funds.
As a serious birder, knowing that Duck Stamp sales have provided habitats like these, I have plenty of reason to buy the stamp every year. But I’ve had some additional involvement with the stamp. In October 2004, I flew to Washington to serve as one of the judges for the contest to choose the 2005-2006 Federal Duck Stamp design.

My fellow judges were John Tomke, president of Ducks Unlimited; Dr. Tom Hutchens, immediate past chairman of Delta Waterfowl Foundation; Rich Smoker, a renowned carver of waterfowl; and Michael Jaffe, a leading philatelist and expert on conservation stamps. Of course, I’m not a hunter or a carver or a stamp expert. I was there to represent the birders.

That could have been a recipe for tension. In some parts of North America there is a deep divide, or at least a sense of wariness, between birders and hunters.  But my relations with hunters always have been cordial, because I’ve always recognized how much they contribute to conservation. As a kid, reading Roger Tory Peterson’s Birds Over America, I was impressed at how the great birdman gave credit to sportsmen’s groups for protecting duck habitat. He wrote about the Duck Stamp, about the National Wildlife Refuges, about private organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He wrote that there was a huge difference between the market gunners of former times, who wiped out wildlife for sheer profit, and modern sportsmen, who worked to maintain healthy populations of wildlife so that hunting could continue.

So even birders who don’t hunt recognize the conservation work done by hunters’ groups. In speaking to bird clubs and bird festivals, I have made this point many times over the last 25 years: “I’m concerned about bird conservation. I worry about what will happen to populations of shorebirds. I worry about what will happen to populations of hawks, woodpeckers, warblers. But I never spend a minute worrying about ducks, because the duck hunters are taking care of them. If duck hunting ever fades away, we will have to scramble like crazy to find a way to protect that whole group of birds and their habitats."

Most birders understand that, so I rarely get any flack for saying it. And having said this to birding groups hundreds of times, it was no sweat to say it to the hunters on the judging panel. We got along fine for our two days of discussions and deliberations, we chose a beautiful painting by Mark Anderson for the 2005-2006 stamp, and I was never made to feel that I, as a birder, was out of place.

Mark Anderson's artwork graced the 2005-2006 Duck Stamp, and I was proud to have played a part in selecting this striking and beautiful design for the stamp.
So if birders are being included as judges in the contest, does that mean that the birding community at large is recognized for its support of the Duck Stamp program?  Well—sort of. There are steps in that direction. Federal wildlife agencies are paying more attention to birders than they used to. For the last few years I’ve been on an advisory panel on “Birding on the National Wildlife Refuges,” and some of our recommendations have gained some traction. But a high percentage of employees at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service still come from a hunting and fishing background. Thinking about birders and nongame birds may be a stretch for some of them.

Whatever the reason, birders sometimes feel oddly left out by the policies of some National Wildlife Refuges. And some birders use that as an excuse for not buying the Duck Stamp. “Why should I buy it,” they say, “when the hunters will get all the credit for supporting the program?” I have argued that the Duck Stamp is a powerful force for bird conservation, and that we shouldn’t care who gets the credit. But at some level, I can see their point. If birders aren’t recognized for supporting the stamp and the refuges, won’t it be harder for us to influence the refuges to help the nongame birds?

For the birders who raise that objection, here’s a suggestion: support the program and make your voice heard by buying the Duck Stamp from a birding organization. There are more and more opportunities to do this. The Georgia Ornithological Society and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology are among several state bird clubs that sell the stamp. Here in northwest Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) started selling the Duck Stamp several years ago. It’s important to note that selling the stamp is not like selling regular merchandise: there is no profit. If BSBO sells a book for 15 dollars, they probably will make 6 or 7 dollars on it. When BSBO sells a Duck Stamp for 15 dollars, the profit is zero. There is no markup. The money all goes straight back to the program.

So why does the Black Swamp Bird Observatory bother to sell the stamp? Because they are committed to conservation. They are committed to supporting habitat for all birds.

Northwest Ohio just might be the best place to build better relations between the communities of birders and hunters. After all, the birders who live here realize that some of our very best birding sites, places like Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, were saved from development by private duck-hunting clubs. The duck clubs kept the habitat in good shape until the time that the land could be sold or donated to the government wildlife agencies. Even today, some of the most productive bird habitat is managed by private duck clubs. So all the birders here know that we owe a debt of gratitude to the hunters.

And the birders here already support the Duck Stamp. Look at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which not only sells the stamp but actively promotes it. On their website, in their nature shop, at their huge Biggest Week In American Birding festival, BSBO urges the birders to buy the stamp and protect habitat.

There are other connections, too. At the end of the month, when the judging for next year’s Duck Stamp takes place in northwest Ohio, the contest will be held at the Lodge at Maumee Bay State Park. This is the same lodge that serves as headquarters for The Biggest Week In American Birding each spring. We birders are very familiar with this place, and many of us will come to the lodge to witness the Duck Stamp contest. We’ll look at the art, pick our own favorites, argue about relative merits of the different pieces, and await the decision of the judges. And when the stamp is issued next June, we’ll be among the first in line to buy it.

Why? Enlightened self-interest. We know that our birding in the future depends on saving habitat today. We know that the Duck Stamp is a highly effective program for saving habitat. So we’re really just helping ourselves.

The duck hunters recognize this principle. Ducks Unlimited, one of the most effective conservation groups in the world, recently started a campaign to urge their members to “Double Up For Ducks,” to buy two Duck Stamps per year instead of one. The hunters don’t have to buy a second stamp—but many of them do.

By the same token, the people at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory don’t have to sell the Duck Stamp—but they do. And the birders don’t have to buy the stamp—but we do.

Do I wish that birders got more recognition for supporting the program? Well, sure. It’s nice to get credit. And we'll keep working on that. But in the meantime, we need to save habitat, and this is one of the easiest, most direct ways to do it. If you like birds and you haven't yet bought your Duck Stamp for this year, why not click this link and buy the stamp right now? 

Helpful links for more information:


  1. What a fabulous piece and spot on. I truly believe that if the estimated 5 million bird watchers in the U.S. all purchased a stamp, they would be noticed by the USFWS.
    Thanks for this great article.

  2. Great comments, Kenn.

    Let's also not forget our colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Back in 2009, Lab Director, John Fitzpatrick, wrote in LIVING BIRD on the importance of the stamp and how non-hunters should appreciate and buy it:

    Recently, CLO has expanded that message, especially in their web offerings. The Stamp is all over their "All About Birds" pages, and elsewhere. See here, for example:

    The same day you wrote your blog, Kenn, I was lucky enough to attend the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission meeting in Washington DC to watch how Migratory Bird Stamp dollars are spent. It was the third, and final, meeting for the year. A report to the MBCC indicated that $23.5 million had been collected in the Fund up to 20 August.

    This particular meeting approved the acquisition of over 2,600 acres of NWR property at three refuges: San Bernard (TX), Turnbull (WA), and Blackwater (MD). Clearly, the benefits were for waterfowl, but the attendees were also told that long-legged wading-birds, shorebirds, Neotropical songbird migrants, and other birds and wildlife benefited.

    Actually, EVERYBODY who bought a "Duck" Stamp last year made a real contribution to those acquisitions. And these, days, more birders are doing just that.

    Again, great comments, Kenn!

    - Paul J. Baicich

  3. Awesome post!

    Thanks for taking the time to better explain the importance of this stamp. Personally, I am boggled by anyone who would argue its importance. Seems like a no brainer to me!

    Chad W.

  4. Kenn and Kim -

    Thank you for shining a bright light on this important topic.

    The Stamp is one of the best and also simplest things birders can do for REAL conservation progress.


  5. From an avid duck hunter that has lived, worked and played in this area for over 40 years. Why doesn't the federal Government REQUIRE birders to buy a stamp to enter a NWR area? If birders supported conservation so passionately, then pull out your wallet and show your support by buying a stamp before entering the area you so freely enjoy. Nothing is free, stop riding the backs of waterfowl hunters and pay up. The truth is that USFWS sees birders as a way to help garner more money for their programs. A waterfowler is required to buy a stamp, so why shouldn't birders be required to? The fact that this article has to be written is somewhat bothersome because many don't get it and those that do are trying to solicit support within their own circles. It should be a requirement to pay for what you truly enjoy.

    I know I'm not the only waterfowler that feels this way. We buy stamps each and every year - both State and Federal...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I just have to say that this is the kind of antagonistic tone that does bird conservation no good whatsoever. When a message is presented with a "Hunters are good and birders are freeloading losers" kind of attitude it gets us nowhere.

      I often wonder if hunters would buy Duck Stamps if they weren't required to. I think it's safe to say that many of them would not. Birders DO buy the stamp, In fact, more and more are supporting the Duck Stamp program all the time. The truth is, the stamp has never been marketed to birders. Up until recently, the bird observatory where I am the director was required to send all of our Duck Stamps back right before the biggest birding season of the year. We held our stamps hostage and refused to send them back. We marketed them to birders in several dynamic and highly-effectively ways, and guess what?!?! BIRDERS BOUGHT THE STAMP.

      The USFWS needs to step up its efforts to market the stamp to birders. Many birders still don't even know it even exists. But when they are given the information and the opportunity to purchase it, a lot of them do.

      One last point: Hunters take birds from the population. Birders do not. So having the stamp be mandatory for hunters makes sense.

    3. Ma'am please don't mistake Mr. Anonymous' comments as those reflecting all hunters.

      I am a wildlife biologist and my hunting heritage is what brought me down my career path. While I am proud that the North American model of conservation begat from the shoulders of anglers and hunters, we currently face a problem that cannot be solved with a house divided among consumptive and non-consumptive users. The simple, and oftentimes unfortunate, mentality that I see is that members from conservation groups that tend to be supported by consumptive users (e.g., NWTF, RGS, DU) and conservation groups that tend to be supported by non-consumptive groups (e.g., Audubon, TNC, various land conservancies) is that they feel like they needed to be pitted against each other. Fortunately, even though I am a hunter and I work for one of the groups that tends to be supported by consumptive users, I work daily with my counterparts from groups that tend to be supported by non-consumptive users to conserve wildlife habitat. I do it under the auspices of a game species and they do it under the auspices of an non-game species. Either way the habitat gets conserved which should be the goal of all of us, regardless of your chosen outdoor vice. No doubt, historically anglers and hunters have supported legislation that had them footing the bill through federally supported programs such as the Pittman-Robertson Act, the Dingell-Johnson Act, and the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, but I am humbled and pleased to see such a notable team of authors advocating for participation from the bird watching community. I will be sure to follow your example and advocate the importance of birders to hunters and anglers from my side of the fence as well.

      Very well written article and very good points. Thank you for the refreshing read! -DC

  6. Some refuges do charge for entry and your duck stamp is accepted as payment. The article above does a great job of explaining why all birders and nature photographers (for that matter) should purchase a stamp (or two). Thanks for the GOS shout-out. GOS has been selling duck stamps to our membership since 2006. You should encourage your local birding organization to do likewise. I'll be glad to help with any questions you have. Just contact me at steve_holzman AT yahoo . com. For details about GOS and duckstamps visit:


  7. I'll leave this here for another perspective:

    The interests of hunters and birdwatchers have a lot of overlap, but there are differences. I already give annually to conservation organizations that own and manage land, and I'd love to do the same thing for the USFWS, but, right or wrong, Duck Stamp revenue is considered hunting revenue.

    I'll buy a Duck Stamp as soon as I'm sure my purchase won't be rolled into statistics used by folks like my fellow Anonymous poster to prove that hunters are the superior conservationists. What we need is a new stamp to represent users with different interests. Until then, I'll just keep paying my entrance fees.

    1. I'm aware that the writers at 10,000 Birds have been saying this for some time. While I respect them as prolific writers and I believe that they support conservation in general, on this topic I think they're seriously misguided. There's a growing swell of support for birders buying the Duck Stamp - from bird clubs, bird observatories, and now even the Cornell Lab of Ornithology - so it's getting harder all the time to claim that Duck Stamp revenue is all considered hunting revenue. I think we're close to a breakthrough on getting the Fish & Wildlife Service to fully acknowledge this, and I would encourage the 10,000 Birds crew to reconsider their position.

    2. Duck Stamp purchases are NOT used as a measure of hunting popularity by the USFWS. I have verified this on several occasions. An Anonymous poster is not a definitive source. I called the USFWS duck stamp office and asked the question directly. Duck stamps are purchased by stamp collectors, birders, hunters and others. To try to use this to measure hunting popularity would be wrong, and they know it.

  8. I agree, buying a stamp shouldn't be required, but your post has helped me realize that any compassionate bird lover, hunter or otherwise, should join in the campaign! Closer to home, we can take steps like setting up a yankee flipper squirrel proof bird feeder to keep our local species safe.