Feathered friends

When I was young, if anyone in my town asked me where I lived, I might say South Pleasant Street. But more likely I said, “Across from the Duck Pond.” It was a landmark with instant recognition

From my mother’s bedroom window, she had a nice view of the pond and could watch the ducks every morning as she sipped her first cup of tea. More than once she invited our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Raymond, to bring the whole class to our house so all the kids could experience the thrill of feeding the always obliging ducks pieces of stale bread. (She came with my younger sister’s and brother’s classes too.) I felt like a big deal when kids told me how lucky I was to live where I did on our walk back to school.

Every afternoon the “Duck Lady,” as we called her, would arrive to feed the assortment of waterfowl cups full of dry corn from the trunk of her white Pinto. The ducks would get flustered and jockey for position as soon as they spotted her car. She was an odd character — eccentric might be the better word. But she was nice to my grandfather who lived with us, and she sent my sister a get-well card when she was in the hospital for several months, so I always liked her.

In the winter, my father would become a wrangler of sorts and help convince the ducks to leave the pond that would soon freeze and waddle or fly across the street to the brook. As a kid, I thought his actions bordered on heroic.

The Duck Pond is where I first learned to cast a fishing line, hook a worm, row a boat, skip a rock and ice skate. We knew to be on the lookout for snapping turtles and wary of the lily pads’ tangled roots below the surface. Every now and then I used to row our boat to a quiet cove where no one could see me. I was seeking solitude before I knew what the word meant. Many years ago, my sister Christine gave me a copy of a Claude Monet print that reminds me of this special place of my childhood.


I hadn’t thought too much about ducks until this past Saturday when I went to the see the documentary The Million Dollar Duck. The film, screened at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of Salem Film Fest, introduces viewers to the world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government.

Every year wildlife artists from around the country submit their best paintings of ducks in the hope that their artwork will be chosen for that year’s Federal Duck Stamp. The stamp is used for hunting licenses and for entrance to any National Wildlife Refuge. Revenues from the stamp have bought and maintained more than 5.3 million acres of waterfowl and wetland habitat in the U.S. It’s considered one of the country’s most successful conservation programs, and I knew nothing about it until Saturday.


Roughly 300 artists enter the contest each year, and this amusing documentary follows seven of them right up until the nerve-wracking public judging. They are a quirky, competitive and talented crew of characters and we found ourselves rooting for almost all of them. Although there is no prize money, the artists can generate lucrative deals from re-licensing the stamp image on other merchandise, hence the title “Million Dollar Duck.”

“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.”

— Mark Anderson, 2004 Federal Duck Stamp winner, The New York Times

The filmmaker, Brian Golden Davis, and one of the artists, Tim Taylor, were in attendance at the screening. The film had its premier at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and Davis shared that Animal Planet had acquired the TV rights and another company acquired the movie rights. Really try to see The Million Dollar Duck, if you can. We were all cheering and laughing and grateful that such a program as the duck stamp existed.

My 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth said she was trying to think of how the movie could be better and she couldn’t think of a thing she would change. Who would have thought a movie about ducks, stamps and the federal government could be so much fun for adults and kids alike? 

My husband and sister Kathleen chat with the filmmaker, who gave my sister a Million Dollar Duck button after she told him she was here to celebrate her recent birthday.
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The girls look at one of Tim Taylor’s duck stamp entries. The detail is pretty amazing.

On my way to work today, I stopped at the post office to see if they sold the Federal Duck stamp. The worker shouted yes, and was so excited because no one had ever asked to buy one from her before. I gave her $25 and officially purchased the 2015-2016 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

This year’s stamp features ruddy ducks. Art by Jennifer Miller of Olean, N.Y.