Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - November 12, 2010

A feather in his cap

Pleasanton wildlife biologist judges art for prestigious Duck Stamp contest

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Carlo Vecchiarelli was a youngster growing up in San Leandro when he became fascinated with the ducks and geese he saw in the wild.

"I have memories as a boy of seeing thousands and thousands of geese going by," he recalled. "My dad built a cabin on Grizzly Island in Suisun Marsh. We'd wait in line for the ferry at Suisun City and go across the slough onto the island. A lot of people were hunting ducks in those days."

The wildfowl we see flying overhead in Pleasanton are Canada geese, he explained; there are wood ducks in creeks along I-580 but they are in pairs, not flocks.

"We used to duck hunt in Pleasanton in the early '60s when there wasn't much here, lots of farms and wetlands," he said. "We used to shoot two or three and bring them home to grandma. She'd cook them up."

Vecchiarelli, 68, no longer hunts ducks but they are a large part of his life. His boyhood love of duck hunting led to an interest in the artistic duck stamps, which must be purchased along with hunting licenses to benefit the preservation of habitats for waterfowl.

When Vecchiarelli was in college at UC Berkeley, his father, a dentist, showed him a duck stamp collection purchased by a colleague for $1,400. When Carlo verified that the stamps were "garbage," his dad suggested he write a book on duck stamps. The result was "U.S. Duck Stamps," published in 1979 and updated in 1986.

"The intent of the book was to educate people on how to buy duck stamps," said Vecchiarelli. "It's a real science. A No. 2 stamp can be valued anywhere from $50 to $1,500."

The introduction explains why the duck stamps were begun, in 1934: "In the early thirties, conservationists were alarmed by the decrease of the wild duck and geese populations due in part to drainage of millions of acres of waterfowl nesting, resting, and wintering habitat. Overshooting and long lasting drought compounded the problem."

To contribute to the cause of preservation, Vecchiarelli, a longtime Pleasanton resident, still buys a duck hunting license every year along with the federal stamp for $17 and state stamp for another $17, for a total of around $75. They are sold by the U.S. Department of the Interior in sporting good shops and are about twice the size of regular commemorative postage stamps.

"The stamp money goes to protect habitat and easements on habitat to it can't be developed," Vecchiarelli said. "The license money goes to the general fund of Fish and Game."

"The stamps are also sold to the Audubon Society, and all kinds of environmentalists buy it," he added.

Vecchiarelli is a wildlife biologist, and a life member of the California Waterfowl Association. He has been involved for more than 30 years in the art, sale and distribution of duck stamps and prints.

Vecchiarelli's knowledge of waterfowl and philately combined to give him the honor of being chosen as one of the five judges for the 2010 Federal Duck Stamp Contest, held Oct. 15 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. The judges included Mike Chrisman, a director for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; John Eadie, professor of waterfowl biology at UC Davis; landscape and wildlife artist Joe Garcia; and Jerry Serie, a wildlife biologist who worked on migratory bird conservation for 35 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We had to be really careful, to look at the design and say, 'Will this make a good stamp?'" said Vecchiarelli.

The ducks must be anatomically correct and be situated in an appropriate habitat, according to the rules. Judges also consider whether the composition has enough color contrast to emphasize the detail and shading; if the central design stands out from the background; and, also importantly, whether the stamp would be eye-catching.

In addition, the design must be simple enough that it can be reduced to stamp size effectively.

"You don't want a duck that looks like a plastic doll," Vecchiarelli explained. "They can be very soft and beautiful."

Designs on both the federal and state duck stamps are chosen in highly competitive contests.

"They started the contest probably around the 26th stamp or so," Vecchiarelli said. "They picked people around the country to judge."

At first the judges were not necessarily well-versed in waterfowl, but then an artist painted a goose in the Bronx zoo that had clipped wings.

"All the environmentalists said, "Oh, my god!'" recalled Vecchiarelli. "Now they get experts in stamps and ornithologists."

Pleasanton residents may remember Vecchiarelli and his wife Geri for their store on Main Street, Dolls and Ducks, which they ran for 20-plus years before it closed in 2003. Geri was the doll enthusiast while Carlo provided the duck stamps and prints, vintage and contemporary waterfowl art, and decoys, antique and hand-carved.

Carlo Vecchiarelli was also employed by the Chabot/Las Positas Community College District for 35 years, and retired in 2003 as Dean of the Math, Computer Science and Engineering Division in the Chabot/Las Positas Community College District. He remains on the College Board.

"I still do four or five duck shows a year," Vecchiarelli said. "There's a big show in Sacramento every year. People sell decoys and stamps, old shotguns."

The artist whose design is chosen receives not only the honor but also a financial windfall as the winning rendition is reproduced in limited edition prints and in sheets of stamps for collectors.

"They can earn as much as $1 million," noted Vecchiarelli. "They make limited edition prints that sell for a lot of money. They put a little remarque on the bottom of the print to show it's the artist's real work. That can bring real big money."

Vecchiarelli also has judged state stamp contests, two in California and one in Nevada. He has judged competitions for decoys and waterfowl wine labels as well. He published two biology textbooks and co-authored "Man and the Environment," 18 modules of films and workbooks used by colleges across the country in the late '60s, early '70s.

Duck stamp printing and collecting has slowed down, said Vecchiarelli, for two reasons.

"People who collected are older, and they've passed away," he said. "And not as many young people are hunting anymore."

The goods news is that although waterfowl populations were once threatened, they are returning, Vecchiarelli said.

"There are areas in the Central Valley that have thousands and thousands of ducks," he said. "They are tremendously smart. They eat around here and stay away from hunters."

"Migratory waterfowl can do bad," he also noted. "They can clean out croplands overnight. They are in competition with man, too. These things have to coexist with us."

Vecchiarelli and his father bought 400 acres in Gustine years ago, and today Carlo still has 125 acres, to which he's added an easement, which cannot be sold or developed upon. It costs him money as he manages the water flow for a proper habitat for waterfowl, but he says it's worth it to him.

"People say, 'Why did you put a federal easement on your property?'" he said. "I did it because 50 to 100 years from now I want to have migratory waterfowl. Otherwise we would have a concrete jungle. These birds have the right to exist in the environment they were born into."

He noted that in Italy, for example, wild game is only hunted on private clubs because it is scarce. Otherwise people can't enjoy seeing them in the wild.

In the United States, 6.5 million acres are under easement and in refuges, Vecchiarelli said, including two large refuges in the San Francisco Bay.

"A refuge is a large parcel of property that normally no one hunts on," he explained. "Sometimes because of the density of ducks, they will open a certain refuge to hunting but they are real careful in doing that."

The number of ducks allowed per hunting license each year is determined by surveys that count the current wildfowl population.

"If there's a dense population we get duck disease, and have massive die-offs," Vecchiarelli said. "The carcasses spread bacteria and have to be picked off and burned.

"Every environment has a carrying capacity, the number of organisms that that particular environment can hold without damage to the population or the environment," he continued.

"I don't shoot ducks any more because I don't eat them. I really don't like killing anything I'm not going to eat personally and I never had a real taste for wild game," he said. "A lot of people love it -- they'll eat 50-60 ducks a year."

But he still enjoys the wetlands and the camaraderie of friends.

"I go down there to Gustine and end up having a nice dinner and playing cards with the old guys in the bunk house, right on the marsh," he said.

His boyhood fascination has lasted a lifetime.

Calling all artists

Carlo Vecchiarelli, a judge in this year's 2010 Federal Duck Stamp Contest, would like to see local artists enter their portraits of ducks and geese in the their natural habitat. He is offering his help to facilitate an entry to either the federal or the junior duck stamp competition if a group, high school or community college would like to hold a contest to find an entry. For more information, call Vecchiarelli at 872-4634.

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