Photo by John Magera, USFWS.

November 1, 2023

Art Foots the Bill for the Web-footed

If we think of artists who have been so inspired by nature that their remarkable artworks have gained for them notoriety and/or income, many come to mind. We might delight in calling forth our remembrances of Claude Monet’s impressionistic paintings depicting the water lilies which grew in the pond at his home. Flashing into our minds might be an image of a red poppy emblazoned there by the famous American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. “So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it …” said O’Keeffe about her painting, Red Poppy. Artists, such as these, invite us to look more closely and encourage us to respond with emotion to elements of nature.

Nature benefits the artist whose creativity is stimulated by it. We, the art viewers, are engaged and enlightened. Thus, through art, we benefit more profoundly from nature. Upon a congressional act in 1934, nature would benefit from art.

The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934 required individuals to purchase an annual stamp to legally hunt waterfowl in the United States. The stamps, probably best known as Federal Duck Stamps, feature artistic renditions of migratory waterfowl, and the revenue from the stamps’ sales enable funds to be garnered for land acquisition and conservation.

“Every year I look forward to seeing what the duck stamp will be,” commented Jim Gillespie, an avid outdoorsman and experienced waterfowl hunter.. “Even though a stamp is small, the skill of the artist shows. One of my favorites is a painting of a pair of pintails loafing in still water, a beautiful image with the male’s reflection slightly distorted by ripples on water’s surface. That stamp (1983) cost $7.50. I paid $25 for the 2023-2024 hunting season’s stamp. Knowing that a great percentage of the money from the sale of the Federal Duck Stamps goes to helping enhance habitat for waterfowl, I’m glad to pay it.”

However, many Illinois waterfowl hunters are unaware of how federal duck stamp funds are used, according to a study, completed in 2017 by Craig A. Miller of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois, and by Adam A. Ahlers of Kansas State University’s Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources. Of the surveyed waterfowl hunters who claimed a hunting frequency of “every year,” only 33 percent answered that the majority of the funds were used to purchase wetlands and other duck habitat, while 38 percent selected “don’t know/not sure.” The suggestion that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should promote awareness of the governmental conservation revenue stamp program is mentioned within “Where Does the Money Go? Awareness of Federal Duck Stamp Fund Expenditures Among Illinois Waterfowl Hunters,” the study’s abstract. “Hunters, bird watchers, and a wide array of wildlife species are direct recipients of benefits from this program,” commented Miller and Ahlers.

A collage of five different stamps featuring various species of wild ducks and one stamp that features a tan Labrador hunting dog.
Some individuals find Federal Duck Stamps highly collectable. The representational artworks offer realistic images that can elicit memories of prized moments in the outdoor world and remind us to take time to look. Photos courtesy of Jim Gillespie from his Federal Duck Stamp collection.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, generated from the 98 percent of the purchase price of Federal Duck Stamps, allows for the acquisition and protection of wetland habitat and the purchase of conservation easements. Funded conservation activities may also include reducing soil erosion and sedimentation and assuring appropriate water management or flood control. In nearly every state at least one National Wildlife Refuge has benefitted from Federal Duck Stamp funds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. The National Wildlife Refuge System, over 6 million acres of land managed for natural communities, includes the Great River National Wildlife Refuge with acreage within Illinois’ borders. The refuge is a mosaic of habitats, including slow-moving backwaters, floodplain forests, wetlands, sedge meadows and grasslands. Those habitats, such as were found historically along the Mississippi River, provide food, shelter and resting areas for waterfowl and other migratory avian species.

Another plus is the amazing artistry of the stamps. In 1949, the first “Duck Stamp” art contest was open to U.S. artists. For more historical information, please peruse the Outdoor Illinois Journal article, “Why Duck Stamps? Part 1: History of the Federal and State Duck Stamps.”

Regulations governing the annual Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Contest include “live portrayal of one of the eligible species, announced early each year, must be the dominant feature of each entry.” Design must be the contestant’s original hand-drawn creation. To further learn about requirements for the art competition, one should consult the website. Names now known in the art world are those of the Hautman brothers, Robert, James and Joseph, who have won the Federal Duck Stamp art competition 15 times. Joseph Hautman’s lovely painting of three tundra swans in flight appears on this season’s duck stamp.

A Junior Duck Stamp art contest is also held annually. The first winner of the Junior Duck Stamp contest in 1993 was Jason Parsons of Canton, Illinois. His remarkable painting portrays a redhead duck paddling beside cattails in a wetland. All funds from sales of Junior Duck Stamps go toward environmental education activities for youths; the Curriculum fosters appreciation of the natural world.

Illinois youth artists also took top honors in the Federal Junior Duck Stamp in 1999 when Ryan Kirby, of Hamilton, won first prize with his rendition of a pair of wood ducks, and in 2011 when Abraham Hunter, of Vienna, took top honors with his painting of ring-necked ducks. Winning entries can be viewed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

A stamp that features three flying white tundra swans as they fly over a frosty winter lake. In the background is a gray cloudy winter sky.
2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp featuring three tundra swans painted by Joseph Hartman from Minnesota. (c) USFWS.

You might buy a Federal Duck Stamp for the privilege of hunting waterfowl and/or to support efforts to restore and maintain natural communities. “The stamp can be used as a pass for entry into National Wildlife Refuges,” stated Sarah Gentry, an U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Park Ranger at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois.

“I purchase five duck stamps each year, one each for myself and my adult children; we like to visit the wildlife refuges,” commented Greg Dubois, an enthusiastic birdwatcher and wildlife photographer.

“I delight in the aspect of the duck stamp allowing art to benefit nature,” stated Sarah Marjanovic, outdoor enthusiast and artist.

Federal Duck Stamps can be purchased at many national wildlife refuges, sporting goods stores and other retailers, through the U.S. Postal Service, or online at

For More Information

Duck Stamps and the Best National Wildlife Refuges for Birding

Why Bird Watchers Should Buy Duck Stamps

Make Birders Count: Buy Your Duck Stamp Through the ABA

Eight Great Reasons to Love the Migratory Bird Stamp

For years, Patty Gillespie shared her enthusiasm for language and nature and got paid for it at a public school and at a nature center. Now she plays outdoors as often as she can and writes for the sheer joy of it.

Sarah Marjanovic is an Educational Programming Specialist with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. She formerly served as a graphic designer and illustrator for clients including the Illinois Audubon Society and the Illinois Lyme Association.

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