They call it the "Olympics of wildlife art," but this year's Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest seemed more like a beauty pageant, right down to the last "... and the envelope please."
The winning entry makes it onto the 1998 duck stamp, which was legislated in 1934 to purchase threatened habitat for migrating birds. In addition to a hunting license, hunters are required to purchase annually a $15 duck stamp. The stamps have raised more than $500 million to acquire 4.5 million acres of wetlands.
This year's contestants could choose from three species of duck: the 47-shades-of-brown mottled duck, the all's-black-but-the-bill black scoter, or the dazzling Barrow's goldeneye. Named after Sir John Barrow - geographer, explorer, and secretary to the British Admiralty - Barrow's goldeneye has white flanks, a dark back, a glossy purple head, and Liz Taylor eyes, only yellow. Nearly 70 percent of this year's 382 contestants chose to paint the glamour duck.
Entries featured diving ducks, dabbling ducks, cuddling ducks, and flying ducks, as well as the classic noble duck at dawn. But it's not enough for these ducks to be beautiful: They also need to look good on a 1-1/2-by-2-inch stamp.
"One of the hardest things in judging this contest is to realize that some paintings look wonderful on a wall, but don't make a good stamp. You can't have the background compete with the ducks," says Donald Stokes, one of five judges in the competition, which was held Nov. 4-6.
Entries are judged on clarity of line as well as the artist's understanding of birds and their habitats. Too many feathers or The right color in the wrong place or too many feathers are enough to drop a painting out of competition. Judges also study projections of each entry through a magnifying glass to evaluate how designs work in miniature.
There were few doubts about this year's winner - a stunning acrylic of a Barrow's goldeneye by San Francisco artist Robert Steiner, who won this contest on his 17th try. The artist has also won 41 state duck-stamp competitions, a record in wildlife art and enough to earn him the sobriquet "Mr. Duck" and "the King of Ducks" by duck-art insiders.
"What I've learned is that you need a bird that stands out," Mr. Steiner said in a phone interview, "and the Barrow's goldeneye has the ultimate contrast of value. When you put the pure white and pure black of the bird against a middle-gray background, the colors pop. The bird also has a beautiful purple iridescence on the head and that golden eye."
Steiner placed No. 3 with a similar painting of a Barrow's goldeneye in this competition two years ago. He says he refined his brushstrokes in this later version, tightened up his treatment of the head and chest of the bird, and produced the best reflections and water droplets (on plumage) of his career.
"This duck will jump off a stamp," Mr. Stokes says. "We hope it will make more people want to buy the stamps and make more money for conservation."
Duck stamps and related duck caps, T-shirts, mugs, calendars, blankets, and limited-edition prints were of interest mainly to hunters, who have been one of the most powerful national lobbies in favor of preserving wetlands and combating water pollution. Duck hunters alarmed by the drop in waterfowl populations during the Dust Bowl era in the 1930s supported user-fee legislation and the creation of an annual duck stamp (then $1) as a way to protect breeding, feeding, and resting grounds for threatened birds. Hunting groups such as Ducks Unlimited also privately raised more than $1 billion to preserve wetlands in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
But recently, conservationists and collectors have taken a greater interest in duck stamps, and their purchases now account for about 10 percent of sales. The US Fish and Wildlife Service expects that interest from collectors will be higher this year, because for the first time the duck stamp will be self-adhesive.
In 1996, nearly 63 million Americans spent $31 billion observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife of all kinds, according to a new study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, to be released later this month. While 3 million hunters shoot ducks and other migratory birds, some 14.3 million people prefer to watch or feed them.
"Bird-watching now ranks just behind gardening as the No. 1 favorite American pastime, and [it's] gaining," says Lillian Stokes, also a judge in the competition. Last month, Donald and Lillian Stokes, top-selling nature authors, launched a PBS television series called "Bird Watch."
Ducks are now more popular than songbirds as the object of all that watching, according to the Fish and Wildlife study.
It's hard not to love a duck. Four marching mallards from the Peabody Orlando Hotel in Florida nearly stole the opening of this year's duck stamp competition, as they waddled and grunted their way past judges and spectators. The march is a variation of their daily strut to and from the signature Peabody hotel fountain.
"Ducks are creatures of habit," says Peabody duck trainer Mark Hirchert. "We can train them to march in about 30 days. And tourists line up to see it."
Duck-caller Sean Mann from Towson, Md., insists that it's more than a cute waddle that draws people to ducks. "You can communicate with ducks. The effect of a good call on waterfowl is incredible. Sometimes a flock far away will turn as if they've hit a brick wall," says Mr. Mann, whose championship quacks from his own handcrafted calls led off this year's event.
"Of course, I don't really know what I'm saying to them. It's probably, 'Free Corn!' or 'It's safe down here!' but it sounds like 'Quack! Quack!' " he adds.
"Ducks are one of the true wild species that we can see in our own cities and suburbs, and that's why people relate to them," says artist Steiner.
The duck population dipped to its lowest recorded ebb in the 1980s, but has been on the rise through the 1990s. This year promises to be one of the biggest migrations since officials started keeping count in 1955. This fall's flight is projected at 89.5 million.
Biologists credit conservation measures and lots of rain on duck breeding grounds on the prairie for the turnaround. "Millions of acres of wetlands have been restored in the past decade," says John Rogers, deputy director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Experts say that the 100 million bird goal of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a cooperative waterfowl recovery strategy by the US, Canada, and Mexico, is now well within reach.
And a little stamp had something to do with it.