'The Million Dollar Duck' Exposes the World's Most Fowl Art

You don't want to miss when the duck hits the fan.

Wildlife art is no joke. It’s been a part of American history since white people started taking and living among sweeping landscapes and wild animals. Think: Oil paintings of national parks, wild geese, creamsicle-covered sunsets over ponds. But perhaps the most elite form of wildlife art comes in the form of the only U.S.-sponsored art contest: The Duck Stamp.

This duck stamp is not a postage stamp, but a paid-for pass to allow people to use wetlands and waterfowl habitats to shoot (regulated) birds, and preserve the land. It's also a free entrance pass to National Wildlife Refuges that normally charge for admission. The “stamp” is about the size of a dollar bill.

President Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (now called the Federal Duck Stamp) in 1929 to purchase and preserve lots of bird-friendly wetlands. The law didn’t fully work out a plan to keep money flowing to buy up and save all these pretty lakes and ponds and bird-friendly habitats; so in 1934, President Roosevelt passed the Duck Stamp Act—requiring people to pay for admission to the duck sanctuaries via a cool-looking stamp.

The very first stamps were created by Roosevelt’s favorite wildlife artists, but that top-down, one-man one-pick system changed in 1949 when the U.S. Government allowed people to submit their duck stamp art via contest.

There’s no monetary prize in winning, even now, but there’s a fuckload of prestige and honor. The real money comes from art collectors who seek out these winning stamp paintings for tons of money, like a million or more. There are people all over the country dying to win this contest, seriously.

As 2004 contest winner Mark Anderson told the New York Times: "In music, you have the Grammys. If you're an actor, it's the Oscars. If you're a wildlife artist, it's winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.” 

And now, coming to Animal Planet this September, you can watch a documentary about the insanity of the Duck Stamp contest. The Million Dollar Duck premiered at Slamdance early this year, and according to the filmmakers, the film "focuses on the strange and wonderful world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government. This film explores the eccentric nature of the contestants who enter each year for a chance at wildlife art stardom, while also reflecting upon the history and challenges facing the continued existence of this successful conservation program."

The documentary seems like one of those sentimental American pastime things I don’t really relate to, but there’s something relatable about people trying hard to make it at something they love. Maybe mallards aren’t your thing, but loving something this much might be. 

The Million Dollar Duck comes to Animal Planet on Wed., Sept. 14 at 9PM ET/PT.