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Duck Stamps and Bluebills

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

In late June the US Postal Service started selling 2021 “duck stamps.” Duck stamps – officially, Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps – were first issued in 1934 for the purpose of protecting wetlands that are the habitat of migratory waterfowl. Hunters are required to buy a stamp to hunt ducks, geese, and other migratory birds.

Buying a new duck stamp has been an annual, preseason tradition now for multiple generations of duck hunters. A crisp fall day was a reminder to make a trip to the post office to buy and sign the duck stamp. Now, the stamp is available online and few urban post offices carry them. Duck stamp sales have raised almost a billion dollars for protecting wetlands, with many of those 1930s dollars – dollars critically needed at a time that few resources were dedicated to conservation.

My grandfather was among the hunters who purchased one of the first duck stamps. Pictured here is my grandfather’s 1935 stamp, signed by him across the front. Duck stamps are signed in this way as a kind of “postmark” to show they have been “used.”

In 1935, when my grandfather bought this stamp, the duck stamp concept would have been very new. It represented a change for Americans used to hunting with only a state-issued license. Some could remember the days of “market hunting” only a few decades earlier and the absence of any limit on the number of birds taken. The impact of unrestrained hunting and habitat destruction on the migratory bird populations sparked the need for federal management and conservation efforts.

My grandfather, like other hunters of his day, embraced the change and proved essential to the burgeoning conservation initiatives. Thanks to the conservation movement beginning at this time, and advanced by people like Aldo Leopold and organizations like Ducks Unlimited, Americans began to understand the importance of protecting the wetlands that are vital for the survival of migratory birds, other species and us. The sale of the duck stamp for hunters and stamp collectors has been a key component of the successful conservation effort.

Duck stamps appeal to more than waterfowl hunters. Collectors are drawn to the artistic depiction of bird species represented. Beginning in 1949, artists competed to have their depictions featured in the current year duck stamp. The result is artwork that educates Americans about migrating waterfowl. Many hunters choose to purchase more than the required single stamp needed to hunt as a way to support conservation efforts. Non-hunters purchase stamps to collect and to support wetland conservation.

The annual duck stamp “tradition” marks the passage of the years, the promise of the upcoming season, and reminds us of our responsibility for wetland conservation. Here is the 2021 duck stamp, now available for purchase.

The migratory bird on this stamp is the “lesser scaup.“ The lesser scaup is a diving duck that prefers larger bodies of deeper water and that is found across much of the US. It is very similar to the “greater scaup“ and they are often referred to together as “bluebills.“ You can see in the photo why. I have vivid memories of watching bluebills fly in a snowstorm. In the bottom left corner of the photo are a couple of duck (or perhaps goose) calls – reflecting the artist’s recognition that hunting is part of wildfowl conservation, and is the main reason that people have been buying ducks stamps since 1934. Thanks to the conservation infrastructure in place with duck stamp funding, we now have pretty accurate data on the North American population of the bluebill since the mid 50s. Changes in breeding by region can be monitored, thanks to this data, and hunting limits can be set to provide the most protection to the species.

Here is the kind of data available on bluebill breeding populations for 2018 and 2019:

The overall population of each duck species can be tracked, relative to a long term historic average. Many species are above their 50 year average. Some, like the bluebills, are below. This data makes it possible to ensure that every wildfowl species is conserved, and harvested, in a sustainable manner, even in the face of factors like predator population and habitat loss that are far more difficult to manage than annual hunting limits.

Spotting a lesser scaup (and distinguishing it from the great scaup) will take some effort. Time spent watching migrating wildfowl is a great way to spend a fall morning – in a duck blind or not. Maybe the 2021 duck stamp will be an inspiration to some to do so. With any luck, you’ll get to see them fly in the snow.

That fall morning could also be a good time to reflect on how America – hunters and nonhunters alike – have embraced the importance of conservation in the 90 year history of duck stamps. I am grateful that these practices have become the tradition, and that we have the privilege of seeing (and if we choose, hunting) such a wide range of wildfowl. 100 years ago, the prospects for wildfowl, let alone wildfowl hunting, in 2021 would have been bleak.

Finding my grandfather’s signed duck stamp from 85 years ago was a treasured discovery. I am grateful that he bought it, that he saved it, and for the conservation lessons passed down from his generation to the ones to come.

Written by Bob Marsh


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