Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Minnesota is the production floor of North America’s duck factory. Our northwest prairie pothole region is a major part of a landscape vital to maintenance of duck populations.
That’s the observation of author Martin J. Smith in his wonderful new book “The Wild Duck Chase.” This is a book about bird conservation, a story focusing on the tiny, unique world of artists who compete each year for the right to have their artwork on what is commonly called the duck stamp.
An important conservation tool, the stamp is officially known as the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. Its short name is duck stamp. All migratory waterfowl hunters in the U.S. must buy and carry this stamp to hunt legally.
The duck stamp actually is a conservation stamp, supported and endorsed at its birth by men known for their broadly based conservation ethic. It meant far more than ducks to them, and it should mean far more than ducks to birders and wildlife enthusiasts of all kinds now.
Smith makes this clear as he recounts one year in the competitive life of artists who seek fame and a bit of fortune with a waterfowl painting. They want their artwork on the face of the upcoming stamp.
As Smith points out, Minnesota plays an over-sized role in both creation and use of this stamp. From 1934, when the first stamp was issued, to 2003, Minnesotans bought more duck stamps than residents of any other state, including those with populations several times as large.
And then there are the artists. Smith follows the 2010 duck stamp contest at which the artwork for the 2011-2012 stamp was chosen. There were over 300 entries. Minnesota artists painted 12 percent of them. They included entries by Minnesota’s fabled Hautman brothers, “the New York Yankees” of the duck-stamp world, according to Smith.
The Hautmans – Jim, Joe, and Bob – have won the contest 10 times in 22 years. Jim and Bob entered the 2010 competition. Brother Joe could not because winners must take a three-year hiatus before entering again. Joe won in 2008.
Smith follows in detail the five artists whose work makes it to the final round of judging. Creating a seven by 10 inch painting of one of five waterfowl species selected for that competition is no simple matter. Artists choose a species carefully. They consider the competition, the judges’ possible predilections, and the vagaries of design: one bird or two, flying, grounded, or on the water, storm clouds above or clear sky?
There is a submission period. Should you send your entry early, late, or in the middle of the period? Entries are presented to the judges during the first elimination round in the order received. Some artists have a superstition-like belief that timing makes a difference.
There are three rounds of judging, the first a simple in or out. The second is point-based to select five finalists (and ties). Judges view the paintings, and then raise cards numbered one through five to assign points. A final round of point assignment determines the winner. There is suspense and tension as well as an Olympic figure-skating flavor to it.
Competitive waterfowl painting is, as Smith describes it, “perhaps the narrowest niche in the known art world,” but that doesn’t lessen the intensity of the artists.
When Europeans first arrived in North America wildlife was so bountiful that people believed – and acted – like there were no limits on what man could do. Waterfowl numbers exceeded the imagination. Uncontrolled market hunting and the inevitable loss of habitat brought imagination to ground. Bird populations were finite.
Smith calls the beginning of the duck stamp program in 1934 “a desperate reaction …. to the strip mining of the New World’s wildlife.”
Today, 78 years later, a problem of a different kind exists. The number of hunters is in decline. Like everyone else, hunters get old and die. They’re not being replaced at the same pace. Stamp sales are in decline.
Duck stamp revenue is used by the federal government (98 cents of every stamp-sale dollar) to buy or protect habitat habitat that favors ducks, but land that also is home or refuge for hundreds of species of birds. Anyone who enjoys birding gets return on the $750 million earned and invested since 1934 through stamp sales.
Our national wildlife refuges have been funded in large part with duck stamp money. The excellent birding found on hundreds of refuges is a gift from hunters.
Smith discusses the effort underway today to convince non-hunters that they too should buy stamps and contribute to this major and historic conservation effort. It should be obvious that the $15 cost of the stamp is a modest and worthwhile investment in preservation of bird species.
The hunting link is what throws some folks off the track. Well-meaning, they protest duck hunters doing what duck hunters do: kill birds. They miss the broader picture. Hunters cannot hunt if bird populations are not high enough to support the harvest. The use of duck-stamp revenue to buy suitable habitat is an effort to maintain waterfowl numbers that allow hunting. At the same time, this land supports hundreds of species of non-game birds.
The duck stamp story as told by Smith is a story of artistic passion, given life years ago by a passion for preservation of land and birds. It is a passion all birders should share.
Smith’s book, published by Walker & Company, will go on sale Sept. 18, 272 pages under hardcover for $25. The duck stamp for 2012-13 goes on sale July 1 for $15. Both purchases are highly recommended. (The book can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com for $16.46.)
Not to spoil the suspense of the story Smith tells, but Jim Hautman won the contest for the 2011-2012 stamp, after much deliberation about which waterfowl species to paint. (He chose White-fronted Goose, the “speckle-belly” as it’s known). It was his fourth win. And the 2012-2013 stamp that goes on sale in July will carry a Wood Duck painted by brother Joe, his fourth winner as well. Brother Bob has won twice.
The New York Yankees of duck stamp art indeed.
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