Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

A glimpse inside the odd and inspiring Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

By Martin J. Smith
Published: 09/14/2013

All this drama has unfolded far off the cultural radar screen. Although many hunters, conservationists, and some birdwatchers know about the Federal Duck Stamp Program, only wildlife artists or fans of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are likely to have heard of it and its annual Duck Stamp Contest, even though by October 2010 it had been around for seventy-six years.

"You'd figure that if the federal government was going to have one juried art competition, it'd come out of the National Endowment for the Arts, not Fish and Wildlife," says Fisher. "But there we are."

The Federal Duck Stamp has nothing to do with postage, even though many people buy duck stamps at their local post office. That misconception was created, in part, by the Coen brothers' 1996 film Fargo, which features a subplot revolving around Norm Gunderson, the husband of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, and his entry in that year's Federal Duck Stamp Contest. In the movie's final scene, Norm quietly announces that his mallard painting has been chosen for a three-cent postage stamp, while an unnamed Hautman's painting of a blue-winged teal will grace the more prestigious first-class stamp.

Actually, the Federal Duck Stamp is the revenue stamp that since 1934 all American waterfowl hunters over the age of sixteen have been required to buy and carry. In recent years about a million-and-a-half hunters, conservationists, and collectors annually have paid for a duck stamp each year, which in 2010 cost fifteen dollars. For that price, not only are they federally certified to hunt, but the duck stamp also entitles them to free admission into all 553 national wildlife refuges. Since passage of the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, ninety-eight cents of every dollar spent on the stamps has gone to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, and related reserves to buy wetlands and habitat for inclusion in the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which protects those resources for future generations. By 2010, the amount raised was more than a billion dollars, money that has been used to preserve 3.5 million acres--an area roughly the size of Vermont.

Without those preserves, market hunters and profiteers with increasingly efficient killing methods would have continued to decimate America's waterfowl populations, as they did through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since 1989, the U.S. government also has run the Junior Duck Stamp Contest designed to build conservation awareness in a nation of youth drifting away from the natural world. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brochure boasts: "Little wonder the Federal Duck Stamp Program has been called one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated."

For both professional and amateur wildlife artists, the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is a chance to claim a measure of artistic immortality. In 1966, organizers began staging the judging process as a public event, at which point the competition moved into an entirely new phase.

"I call it America's first reality show," says Fisher. "American Idol for wildlife artists."

The buildup to the two-day, three-round judging process can be thrilling, or devastating. In the tight-knit, insular world of duck stamp obsessives, pre-contest handicapping is as much a part of the competition as the paintings themselves. As the judging weekend approaches, handicapping unfolds in private conversations, on Internet message boards, in Facebook postings, and in gallery gossip. Almost all of it is pointless, of course, since no one knows what the judges want, or even who they are. But that doesn't stop artists and collectors from pursuing their guesswork with the zeal of research scientists.

The annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest is one of the biggest and most influential events in the world of conservation, and it has lured generations of artists into the world of wildlife painting. It also has scared a few away.

"Since I was a little fledgling bird artist, maybe fourteen years old or so, friends were urging me to do the duck stamp thing," recalls David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of many landmark birding books, including The Sibley Guide to Birds, considered by many bird enthusiasts to be the most comprehensive guide for North American field identification. "They said, 'You've gotta do this! It's worth millions! You'll be set for life if you win it once! The Duck Stamp is where it's at!' But I've never entered. It wasn't really my thing, and I never got around to getting the entry form and getting organized to be able to enter."

But, Sibley concedes, it was more than that. "My reluctance to enter was partly because, whenever I looked into it a little bit, I saw how competitive it was. And there are these brothers who win it year after year. So I felt it wasn't really my strength, and I didn't feel like I'd have much chance of winning." 

It's a startling revelation, considering Sibley's lofty place in the world of wildlife art. But his reluctance underscores just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Delve far enough into this peculiar American subculture, and you'll find a fascinating cast of characters arrayed on a stage where legends have been born, dreams have died, and controversies have flared.

Excerpted from The Wild Duck Chase by Martin J. Smith, published in 2013 by Bloomsbury USA, Copyright (c) 2012 Martin J. Smith. All rights reserved.

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