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History of U.S. Duck Hunting

Many know Arkansas as a hotspot for migratory birds and is historically famous for duck hunting. We wanted to know the answers to lesser-known questions: Where did duck hunting begin? Who were the champions for the modern-day sport? What legislation shaped the industry?

Early History of Duck Hunting

Modern day duck hunting is vastly different from the earliest traces of the sport. There is prehistoric evidence to suggest that duck trapping was a thing nearly twelve thousand years ago.

In North America, snares were used for ducks in the Southwestern region two thousand years ago. Around the 1700s, hunters used matchlock shotguns and upgraded to flintlock up until the 19th century.

Duck hunting was a major pastime in Europe, which was also home to major firearm developers. This helped drive evolution in firearms for waterfowl hunting and increased the number of ducks harvested. (1)

As the sport increased in popularity, duck populations declined. Something had to be done about unregulated hunting – which shaped modern day duck hunting.

Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918

Early conservation efforts were made by way of the Weeks-McLean Act. Though meant to curb overhunting, the act was nullified.

The original Migratory Bird Treaty encompassed the United States and the United Kingdom. Overhunting due to sport and demand for feathers drove this decision. This made it illegal to hunt ducks while riding inside a motor car or a boat in motion. It also established a time limit to hunting. (1)

Federal Duck Stamp Program

“Land, water, and vegetation are just that dependent on one another. Without these three primary elements in natural balance, we can have neither fish nor game, wildflowers nor trees, labor nor capital, nor sustaining habitat for humans.” -Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling

The first Federal Duck Stamp designed by Ding Darling. Credit: U.S. Fish andWildlife Service
The first Federal Duck Stamp designed by Ding Darling. Credit: U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service

A newspaper cartoonist reaching millions of people each week, Jay N. Darling was a champion for early conservation efforts. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Darling to head the U.S. Biological Survey, which would eventually become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In this role, Darling secured $17 million for wildlife habitat restoration. He also established the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to bring hunter and conservationist together. (2) Arkansas Senator John Boozman sits on the commission today. Since the commission’s establishment, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acquired more than 6 million acres. (3)

The Federal Duck Stamp Program was also established under Darling’s leadership. Those interested in hunting waterfowl would be required to purchase this stamp to participate. The first duck stamp was designed by Darling and cost applicants $2. This program uses proceeds from the sale of duck hunting stamps to purchase and maintain waterfowl habitats. (2) Additional funds began to be collected through taxes on firearms, boosting conservation programs.

Pintail ducks

1930s Population Crisis

Environmental factors, the farm economy, and Great Depression created a perfect storm in the 1930s a major decrease in the duck population. A major dry season was decreasing available ponds, lakes, and other waterfowl habitat. Farmers were clearing land to increase acreage and better manage irrigation. The alarming drop in waterfowl numbers led for a large push for renewed conservation efforts. (1)

Ducks Unlimited

Founded in 1937 in New York, Ducks Unlimited began to restore duck habitat in all four major flyways. Their first year, they were about to restore 155,000 acres. These efforts continued through local chapters, volunteers, and donations. (4)

Today, Ducks Unlimited is a major force in waterfowl contributions, forging relationships with corporate and government entities to drive change.

History of Arkansas Public Land

Arkansas’ reputation for duck hunting spread in the 1930s and 1940s, beginning a mass influx of out-of-state hunters. Many traveled by rail and used a local guide or purchased hunting properties. As land available for purchase dwindled, George H. Dunklin, Jr. Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area was founded. The first in Arkansas, it was named for former Ducks Unlimited President and lifelong Grand Prairie resident. (9)

The tradition of Arkansas duck hunting continues today.

Economics of Arkansas Duck Hunting

Stuttgart, Arkansas has been dubbed “Rice and Duck Capital of the World,” the town of less than 10,000 is host to thousands of hunters each season. Over 50,000 acres of public land in the state of Arkansas draws over 100,000 waterfowl hunters each year. Duck season contributes approximately $70 million to the state’s economy each year. (7)

In addition to rivers and other bodies of water, rice fields make Arkansas an attractive location for waterfowl. In the United States, over 700,000 acres are flooded each year. Increased loss of natural wetlands has led waterfowl to rely on rice farmers and their fields.

Field with ducks flying overhead

Flooding fields is beneficial for both farmers and waterfowl. While farmers tackle weed control and erosion by flooding fields in winter, waterfowl benefit from a nutrient-rich food source. The shallow water allows for rest and feeding on waste grain and insects. (8)

The ecology of any waterfowl species is shaped by trade-offs between being able to access resources while avoiding risk of death and disturbance. These trade-offs influence where ducks and geese eat, what region they go to, and even what county they winter in. In the Arkansas Delta, most of the land is privately owned, making it critical for landowners to manage the resources provided.

Black lab duck hunting
“The collective management of bottomland hardwood forests, moist-soil wetlands, and agricultural grounds to provide the right resources for wintering waterfowl is the only way to ensure that our children, and their children, have good hunting and can enjoy waterfowl in Arkansas the way we do today,” said Bill Free, Director of Member Relations for Riceland.

Climate-Smart Commodities

Ducks Unlimited and Riceland are working simultaneously to drive conservation and sustainability initiatives. In September 2022, it was announced that the USDA is investing up to $2.8 billion in selected projects under the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.

Ingrain Good logo

Riceland’s Ingrain Good Carbon Ready Program allows the unique opportunity to be financially rewarded for sustainable rice production. Read more about this program here. Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership will also be receiving USDA funding under this program. Read more about this partnership here.


What began with snares has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar, highly technical industry in the United States. From legislation to conservation efforts, enthusiasts of the sport have a history of stewardship. Riceland is excited to support these efforts through industry relationships and the Riceland Ingrain Good Carbon Ready Program.