In early spring, sometimes as early as the first cold mornings of March, Jeff Klinefelter will rouse before daybreak and drive out to his pond to get in place before the migrating ducks or other birds light on the water or the woodland edge.

Squeezed into his homemade 4-by-4-by-4-foot duck blind, he’ll sit in silence, sometimes four or more hours, watching, waiting, looking for a good shot. He takes note of the birds’ colors and plumage as well as how they act and react when they arrive to the open water.

When the perfect one comes along he focuses in and… snap. He takes a picture. “I don’t know why anyone would want to shoot a duck,” he says. “They’re beautiful.”

Lion Jeff Klinefelter in his lifelong home with his painting of an Indiana farmstead. PHOTO BY CHARLES JISCHKE

He isn’t there to hunt wildlife, though his work is often featured on the stamps hunters purchase for the right to shoot. What he is looking for during those long mornings in his duck blind are the tiny details that make each bird unique. The photos will become references for future paintings, or sometimes just records for future reminiscing.

Klinefelter, an Etna Green Lion from Indiana, has made a national name for himself in the wildlife art community, winning multiple top honors in migratory bird stamp competitions, commonly called duck stamp contests, in about 18 states.

Locally, he is known as a quiet conservationist, a man to count on when work needs to be done. He loved two things as a child – the outdoors and art – and began drawing when he was just old enough to hold a pencil, he says. Now at 68, living in the same sturdy bungalow where he was raised, he describes himself as semi-retired.

He clarifies. That means he is cutting back on the work that takes time away from his art. “I’ll never retire from painting,” Klinefelter says. “Not as long as I can hold a brush in this hand.”

The artist’s tools – pencils and brushes that fill a coffee cup next to his easel – have been his lifelong companions. But the inspiration for his work can’t be so neatly contained. It’s not riches or fame, but nature. “And all you have to do is go outside and pay attention,” he says. “It’s unbelievable if a person goes out and sees what’s there.”



In the quiet of the small studio he built in his backyard, Klinefelter’s work comes alive. On average, he will spend five or six hours a day for three weeks in virtual solitude there, painting a duck or waterfowl picture, and even an occasional trout for a contest, like the rainbow trout that won him first place in a Delaware stamp competition. Coming up with the design, starting with a thumbnail sketch, can take as long as the painting. He says, “It’s just as important.”

Klinefelter graduated from Indiana University’s Herron School of Art and Design in 1974, but knew that “being a freelance artist is pretty financially risky.” He went back home to work with his father in their mowing business, and although he got to be outside, his artwork became secondary.

One day he read in a wildlife magazine about the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. He began entering the Indiana state competition, and in 1988 won his first top prize for his painting of a bobwhite quail that had been one of his mother’s favorites. That’s when the dam broke. A steady stream of award-winning paintings followed nationwide.

“Oh, there were plenty contests I didn’t win,” he says. “But I never gave up. I just kept trying.”

Klinefelter works on a painting of canvasback ducks in his studio. PHOTO BY CHARLES JISCHKE


In both Louisiana and California, Klinefelter has earned three first-place ribbons, the most recent being in the 2020 California Upland Game Bird Stamp Contest for his painting of a ruffed grouse. It was his third consecutive year to win California’s top prize, and judges praised his composition and fine detail, noting the accuracy of the feathers.

“Winning takes more than a pretty picture,” says Larry Reynolds, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries manager. “When you get right down to it, the single most important thing is that the body composition, the colors, the posture, and the habitat is accurate. It has to be as realistic as it can be.”

Since 1934, when President Herbert Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, known as the Duck Stamp Act, hunters have been required to buy a federal duck stamp before hunting waterfowl. States also required their own stamps for hunting, but in recent years some states have gone the way of electronic licenses, and some have stopped the duck stamps entirely. States like California use an automated license data system but still produce the stamps for collectors as well as hunters and conservationists who want to support habitat. California Fish and Wildlife estimates about 17,000 stamps featuring Klinefelter’s 2020 winner will be distributed.

Klinefelter likes that the sale of the stamps helps conservation efforts. Ninety-eight percent of the proceeds from each US$25 Federal Duck Stamp goes to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund for the acquisition of wetlands as waterfowl habitat. These wetlands act as the sponges in nature, and are home to more than one-third of the threatened and endangered species in the U.S. Many species of birds and mammals depend on them for food and shelter, especially during migration and breeding, and for all of us they enhance water quality, helping control flooding and erosion.

Although he has not won this prestigious federal contest that draws around 150 artist entries each year, Klinefelter has placed among the top 10. “I’ll keep trying until I can’t do it anymore,” he says.

His painting of gray partridges was chosen for the 2005 Oregon Upland Game Bird stamps. PHOTO BY CHARLES JISCHKE


He is a member of organizations like The Nature Conservancy, and a non-hunting member of Ducks Unlimited because he likes their magazine and knows that taking care of the environment goes beyond enjoying the beauty of it. You can’t have one without the other.

"But the inspiration for his work can’t be so neatly contained. It’s not riches or fame, but nature. “And all you have to do is go outside and pay attention,” he says. “It’s unbelievable if a person goes out and sees what’s there.”

On a Saturday morning, or maybe two this spring, he will be picking up trash along the county road with his fellow Etna Green Lions. He is president of the small but active club for the third time in his 25 Lion years and is involved in all of their projects, from the kids’ Easter egg hunt to their work at the county fair.

Just seven miles from his home, visitors to the nonprofit Potawatomie Wildlife Park, a 317-acre complex of fields, woodlands, ponds, and wetlands bordered by the Tippecanoe River, might also see Klinefelter chopping firewood, measuring fish for a kids’ fishing derby, or working on the historic log cabin. He is president of the park foundation and a working board member.

“Jeff ’s been here a long time and he is key to a lot of things getting done at the park,” says Mike Stephan, Potawatomie’s executive director. “He’s a highly valued member of the board. He certainly exhibits that Lions’ service attitude.”



Even if he isn’t working at the park, Klinefelter may be there watching birds and critters along the trails. It’s a life of few commercial distractions that he has chosen.

“I’m small-town this and that,” he says. He has no computer and no interest in owning one, relying on friends at the Bourbon Library to download required contest information. And while he has a cell phone, he prefers to have it turned off sometimes. Life is full enough with Lion meetings and events, his volunteer work at the park, his involvement at the Etna Green United Methodist Church, summertime mowing for a little extra cash, and meeting contest deadlines, like the upcoming one for the 2021 Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Contest.

He is painting an osprey.

Eventually, says Klinefelter, he would like to paint fewer birds and more landscapes, like the peaceful one that hangs above his mantle. Maybe he’ll even try some abstract art – an escape from the accurate detail that painting waterfowl requires.

But at the moment: “It’s a habit,” he says, laughing. “I can’t break it. I guess I’m addicted to ducks.”