Waterfowl hunters, check your wallet, and you will see that this year’s duck stamp - now known as a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, but who calls it that, anyway? - this year’s duck stamp features a pair of mallards. It is a return to the roots of the program. The first federal duck stamp, issued in 1934, also bore the likeness of a mallard pair.
The man who sketched those immortal birds in 1934 was Jay Norwood Darling, a figure celebrated in the history of conservation and profiled in a biography, by David L. Lendt, entitled Ding: The Life of Jay Norwood Darling.
Born in Michigan, Darling grew up in Iowa. Following college, he began a career as a political cartoonist in 1906, drawing first for the Sioux City Journal and then for the Des Moines Register. He signed his cartoons, which won him two Pulitzer prizes, simply as “Ding.” So I’ll call him that from here on.
Ding was a conservative Republican. This is worth mentioning because the duck stamp program is a success story of federal initiative.
In 1934 Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Ding director of the United States Biological Survey, now known as the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Ding was a notable exponent of wildlife conservation, but some said FDR made the appointment also to bring one of his most effective critics inside the tent.
Within a few days Congress passed and FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act. This was the authorization for the duck stamp, with sales going to fund acquisition and maintenance of strategic wildlife habitat--mainly wetlands on the prairies.
The great drought of the 1930s was on, waterfowl numbers were crashing, and wildlife biologists had come to realize that as the prairies go, so goes the waterfowl population. So the causative origins of the duck stamp program are on the Great Plains, and it is here that the program has done its greatest work.
The artwork for the first duck stamp was done by none other than Ding himself, sketching on pieces of cardboard that had come with his dress shirts back from the cleaners. He intended his sketches to be mere prototypes, but the printers got ahead of him.
Here in North Dakota, the Upper Souris Wildlife Refuge, established 1935, is a direct product of the system initiated by Ding. The 9600-acre lake in the refuge is named Lake Darling.
Ding said of his work that he was “the custodian of all of the wild life species that exist. Noah started it. I think he must have been the first member of the Biological Survey! He built the ark to save a pair of all wild life. The only difference between Noah and my personal experience is that he started out in a flood and I started out in a drought. . . .
“We have driven game back to the river margins, the raw ragged edges of this country,” Darling cried. “We have changed from the old period when game was a part of our life, but the instinct still remains with us. . . . We are only one generation removed from it.
“We are not doing all this for the hunters. I should not be here if all that I was doing was making it possible for people to go out and kill game. My chief interest lies in restoring America to itself.”
I do not know what is in the minds of my fellow prairie waterfowlers when they take their retrievers to the march each autumn, but I hope that their hearts harbor the noble sentiments of Ding Darling.