The wild duck chase : inside the strange and wonderful world of the Federal Duck Stamp contest

I've always been fond of books that give you a peek into an obscure subculture, and Martin J. Smith's The Wild Duck Chase is a good one.  The world into which Smith takes us is that of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only art contest run by the federal government.  Unless you are a duck hunter, you're most likely to have heard of the duck stamp from the movie Fargo, which ends with Marge's husband telling her that he's finished second in the contest.  That mention gets a few details wrong.

The biggest of those details is that the duck stamp has nothing to do with postage; it's a stamp that hunters are required to buy (for fifteen dollars) when they get a license to hunt ducks or other waterfowl.  The proceeds go to purchase and maintain America's wetlands nature preserves.  And the duck stamp program is one of the government's most efficient, with 98% of revenues going to the wetlands, and only 2% to overhead and expenses.

Smith introduces us to several wildlife artists as they prepare for the 2010 contest.  It's the first time the contest has been held in the western United States, and since each year's judges are usually recruited locally (in order to keep the expenses down), and many of the artists decide to paint birds from the west in hopes of appealing to the panel.

Smith alternates his focus between that single contest and the broader history of the duck stamp program.  It begain in the mid-1930s, and the idea of choosing the artwork for each year's stamp with an art contest came about fifteen years later.  In 1966, the judging was opened to the public for the first time, turning the event into what Smith calls "American idol for wildlife artists."

Among the artists we meet are Minnesota's Hautman brothers, a talented trio who have collectively won the contest ten times since 1990, including three of the last five.  Sherrie Russell Meline is one of only two women to win the contest; and Rob McBroom is the outsider of the pack, entering avant-garde paintings that are doomed to quick elimination in a contest that prizes photorealism.

As hunting has become less popular, the sales of the duck stamp have declined.  Many states now don't even require the purchase of a physical stamp; you can print out a barcode online.  In an attempt to revitalize the program, there's been an attempt to increase sales to the environmentally minded non-duck hunting public, but bridging the "hunter-hugger" divide has proved challenging.  Many environmentalists associate the stamp exclusively with hunting, which they view negatively, and are less aware of the ecological purpose of the program.

Smith's journey to the world of the Duck Stamp Contest makes for entertaining reading.  As good luck would have it--both for Smith and for the reader--the 2010 contest was a particularly exciting one, coming down to a tiebreaking vote in the final round.  The book also has more than its share of colorful characters and fascinating history.