As the days shorten and cold arctic blasts move down upon us, the skies erupt with the songs of waterfowl and other birds migrating to wintering grounds. About 1.5 million birds winter on or around the Chesapeake Bay. These include ducks, swans, geese, herons, egrets, loons, cormorants, grebes, gulls, terns and raptors.

The Bay's more than 11,600 miles of shoreline, including major rivers and 200,000 acres of coastal marshes, lure birds from Alaska, Canada, north-central United States and New England.

Protecting and conserving these habitats are critical to the survival of wintering waterfowl. Those who think that they cannot help in such a huge undertaking are wrong. Everyone can ensure their survival through the Federal Duck Stamp Program.

Initially, the Migratory Birds Hunting and Conservation Stamp, now known as the Federal Duck Stamp, began as a revenue stamp purchased by hunters of migratory birds. Today, the stamps are a vital tool for wetland conservation.

Beginning in 1934, Federal Duck Stamps have generated more than $670 million, which has been used to help purchase or lease more than 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States. Ninety-eight cents out of every dollar generated by stamp sales goes directly to habitat protection in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Waterfowl are not the only wildlife to benefit from the stamps. Numerous birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians that rely on wetland habitats have prospered. Further, an estimated one-third of the nation's endangered and threatened species find food or shelter in refuges established using Federal Duck Stamp funds.

People, too, have benefited from the program. Hunters have places to enjoy their heritage and other outdoor enthusiasts have places to hike, watch birds and visit. Moreover, the protected wetlands help to purify water supplies, store floodwater, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and provide spawning areas for fish important to sport and commercial fishermen.

Besides serving as a hunting license and a conservation tool, a current year's Federal Duck Stamp also serves as an entrance pass for those National Wildlife Refuges where admission is normally charged.

Federal Duck Stamps and products that bear the stamp images are also popular collector items. The beautiful stamps gain value over the years and are an important part of U.S. outdoor culture. Today, many states also issue their own versions of duck stamps. In some states, the stamps are purely a collector's item; in others, the stamps have a role in hunting and conservation similar to the federal stamps.

Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsors a stamp design contest. Wildlife artists from across the nation submit their work for judging by a panel of artists and wildlife experts.

The winning art is used on the next year's stamp. After the winning design has been selected, the artwork is submitted to the U.S. Postal Service, which produces the stamp.

In 1989, the first Junior Duck Stamps were produced. The Junior Duck Stamp program teaches students "conservation through the arts." Revenue generated by the sales of Junior Duck Stamps funds environmental education programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories (American Samoa and the Virgin Islands).

A similar process is used for Junior Duck Stamps. Students across the country enter artwork in their state's Junior Duck Stamp contest. Students compete in one of four age brackets. State-round judges select a Best of Show piece from the first place winners in each age bracket to represent their state in the National Junior Duck Stamp Contest. The winner from the Best of Show entries becomes the next year's Junior Duck Stamp.

Both Federal Duck Stamps ($15) and Junior Duck Stamps ($5) are sold in many post offices across the country. Contact your local post office to find out if they sell them.

Both stamps can also be purchased on the Internet and at many sporting goods and outdoor stores.