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The Avid Reader: A Ducky Existence

In the 1980s a researcher from Temple University surveyed 1,674 major paintings considered important to the history of art. Searching works in museums and art-history books from around the world, he discovered that 64 percent of the works from places such as ancient Egypt and Persia contained images of animals and/or birds. By the 20th century this number dwindled to 15 percent worldwide.

Various explanations have been offered, but the really startling one was the researcher’s suggestion that most people like to view pictures containing animals and/or birds and that gives it “the taint of the masses.” In other words, those guardians of “high art” relegate paintings real people actually like to the common folk and the real (important) art to those elect few who truly understand art. Clearly animals and birds do not abound in these “important” pieces as they are enjoyed by too many people.


I like ducks. Now that I have confessed to my tainted predilection I will take a step further down the common path and note that wildlife art is also a preference of mine.

Since wildlife art clearly falls in with the masses (like me) it usually winds up in the most unlikely places — such as on the Federal Duck Stamp. Alas, not in “important” galleries.


I also like duck stamps and actually know people who collect the new one every year. The history of these stamps and the art from which they came is indeed from a very different art world and certainly one worth knowing about – at least by the “masses.”

“The Wild Duck Chase”

Martin J. Smith also taken by the beauty of these stamps has written, “The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.” This is quite an interesting read. The contest began in 1934 as a way to generate money to purchase or lease land for waterfowl habitat; the nucleus of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The arrangement has been quite successful, and to date more than $750 million has been generated by this common art to obtain 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States. Not too shabby.

However, wildlife habitat preservation has often depended on the generosity of the people who use the particular habitat. If you do not hunt ducks or hang around in marshes to observe ducks, you are most likely not cognizant of the dire need to save these dwindling areas.

Of course bird enthusiasts become very upset at the thought of waterfowl being shot out of the air by hunters while hunters feel very misunderstood overall. Don’t worry I’m not getting into that one. But, as the number of birders increases yearly, the number of duck hunters decreases yearly, and it is the hunters that buy the Federal Duck Stamp that pays for a lot of habitat preservation. Thus the dilemma: there is a real fear that without the Federal Duck Stamp Program funding for wetland habitat will dry up; as in the near future there may not be enough hunters to keep in going.

Stepping beyond the dilemma, Smith also features the artwork itself. While not the stuff of the high-tone gallery, the paintings submitted for the Federal Duck Stamp Contest are really magnificent. Artists must paint a very accurate scientific rendering of the subject (any duck or migrating wild goose is eligible) as well as render as lovely a picture as possible. This is not as easy as it sounds, and Smith provides insight into the painting processes of the wildlife artists who compete, as well as the stories of the contest itself. I liked the pace of this book, along with the content, and really enjoyed learning so much about the Federal Duck Stamps, the contest, and the artists.

I was also surprised to learn that there is a Junior Duck Stamp Contest. Begun at the federal level in 1993, this program, part of “Let’s Go Outside!” the attempt to connect youth to nature, now involves many states. Unfortunately, while New Hampshire is not one of them, most other New England states are. As it catches on it is possible this type of contest will bring in a younger generation of wildlife enthusiasts and artists who can promote the cause of wildlife habitat preservation.

The conservation and preservation story in America is quite old in relation to much of the world but every new generation must hear the history and learn as many particulars as possible to become part of this preservation effort.

“Wood Duck Adventures”

The story is told to children and adults alike every time art and science works together for this common cause or shared preservation interest. In 1953 such a partnership was forged between a wildlife photographer and wildlife researcher. The product of this 50-year partnership is F. Eugene Hester’s recent book “Wood Duck Adventures.” Although small in size, this volume contains Jack F. Dermid’s delightful wood duck photographs and Hester’s narrative and research findings. It is a perfect introduction to the wood duck for beginning birders and conservationists.

I knew nothing of wood ducks before I read this slim book, as these birds remain in North Carolina and other southeastern states throughout the year. Most do not migrate. They also live in hollow trees and perch on limbs, clinging with their sharp claws. Claws and ducks never seem to go together, but it is different for the wood duck. Hester also discusses the photographing of these ducks, their population shifts, roosting behavior, and hunting as well. This is all very interesting information that is easily read, understood, and considered when helping to preserve wildfowl habitats. There is nothing like a scientist when it comes to details about his major subject of interest; but when he partners with an artist the next step they both take creates a gestalt that everyone can appreciate.

“Humans, Nature
and Birds”

Fortunately, scientists have appreciated birds in art for a very long time. In “Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens,” authors Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy outdid themselves in tracing how scientific bird art connects us to both nature and science. Wheye and Kennedy note that science art is a teaching mechanism used to demonstrate the fusion between a creative process and the truths found in the natural world. To be science art a work must always represent the actuality of the subject, the expression and passion of the artist, and a way of connecting the subject to the viewer. In most instances it is also far superior to a photograph for scientific purposes.

Starting with a 30,000 year old Paleolithic owl etching found in Chauvet Cave, the authors describe how birds have always served as resources for humans, are used as teaching tools, a means of understanding biology, and a way to promote conservation.

Beyond the scientific and practical, however, we must also take a step into the aesthetic and see how the artistic expression conveys the artist’s passion for the subject matter. Birds are not only our global “mine” alerting us to environmental dangers; they are also funny, fragile, colorful, appealing, and a thing of beauty both in flight and on the earth’s surface. This is the view that art captures for our enjoyment. This is the “beauty” of art linked to the “real” of science.

Replete with color plates of beautiful scientific art, including some magnificent duck paintings, this book makes it is easy to become a “biophile.” This is a person who feels entangled with the web of life and who feels kinship with other living creatures with whom we share this planet. When I read this book I knew that somehow ducks (and other native birds) and humans just belong together. To keep that vision going we need to learn about ducks and other wildfowl, support the federal efforts, and celebrate the amalgam of science and art when it conjoins in a beautiful visual symphony.

I’m starting by buying a duck stamp, putting it in a tiny frame and hanging it on a wall. Here’s quacking at you kid.

Elaine Holden of Peterborough is a nationally recognized expert in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. She is the director of The Reading Foundation and Senior Lecturer at Rivier College Graduate School of Education. She wants everyone reading.

Legacy Comments1

I was more than a little surprised when I read the part about wood ducks. The article stated that wood ducks remain in the south east states and that most do not migrate. While some may remain in the south east wood ducks migrate to most parts of North America including NH where they nest and breed by the thousands. Wood ducks aren't rare just reclusive, they can be seen in NH wetlands during the summer months every year. The male of the species is a stunning sight, surely one of the most beautiful birds in all of North America. The NH Dept. of Fish and Game allows hunters here to take three a day during the open season.

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