Little by little, the ducks draw you in.

At first it's hard to tell one entry from another, but after you've seen a couple of dozen acrylic, oil and watercolor paintings, an appreciation creeps up on you.

No. 34 won't make the cut. That bird is tentative. A victim. Ready to surrender his succulent breast, the dim beads of his eyes crying out: "Baste me in orange sauce and be done with it already!"

Unlike No. 80 or No. 234. So tactile. So full of life. Renderings that invite you to reach out and stroke the delicate softness of their plumage. Or fantasize about centering them in the cross hairs.

For the creative, right-brained offshoot of the outdoor and hunting crowd, this is a shot at nirvana.

The Federal Duck Stamp Contest winner was crowned yesterday at the Interior Department. After two days of ceremony and judging and hawking of all things migratory bird, a mottled duck by an Ohio artist will grace the 2000-2001 stamp. The stamp, a kind of driver's license for waterfowl hunters across the country, is a major source of funds for federal conservation efforts.

And it's a huge deal.

The event, which was begun in 1934, is the largest, and the only, federally sponsored art contest. The big daddy of bird draws, the Super Bowl of waterfowl renderings, the "Olympics of wildlife art," it can result in nearly a million bucks in speaking fees and heightened print sales, as well as overnight celebrity--albeit of a very narrow, specific type.

Like so many subcultures that dot the American landscape, this is one of particular, esoteric intensity. Competition is fierce and the contest is tightly regulated to prevent cries of FOWL. It even has a ruling family, a veritable duck stamp dynasty, which got a satirical sendup in the 1996 movie "Fargo."

The annual contest opens with a parade of live ducks and a chance to go down in the definitive history book, "The Duck Stamp Story." It is a competition rife with drama, duality and nuance of wing, proving once again: Folks are into a lot of different stuff out there, people.

Before judging began Thursday, there were calls from the mottled, the Mexican and the mallard ducks and honks from Canada geese. But that was just Sean Mann, three-time world champion duck caller, warming up the crowd. Then duck master Mark Hirchert ushered the Peabody Orlando Hotel marching ducks down the aisle. You can't go to school to be a duck master, explained Hirchert earnestly; you just "need to be an animal lover, someone with a lot of patience. These ducks are very wild. They don't know to stay on the carpet, they don't know to stay in the duck fountain."

After a love tour around the Interior building auditorium, the five ducks waded into a pool of lettuce, where they munched and kept a wary eye on their brother, the stuffed black-wing-tipped snow goose that sat on an imitation marsh branch just above them. After all, they shoot ducks, don't they?

Ninety-eight percent of the proceeds from the $15 duck stamps are used to buy and support wetlands, which can seem kind of ironic--a model for conservation funded by hunters. But according to John Rogers, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that's the great misconception.

"In order for there to be game to hunt, there has to be a healthy environment to support them," Rogers says reasonably. "As long as we have a healthy resource, one of the most appropriate uses is hunting."

He says it is the lure of the outdoors, the camaraderie of family and friends, and the chance to pit your skills against nature's finest that draws folks to hunting. "The fact that you are able to shoot something is a secondary outcome of the outdoor experience."

Last year's winner, Jim Hautman of Plymouth, Minn., agrees. "I don't think there's any group of people that cares more about the ducks than the hunters," said Hautman, looking over this year's flock. A three-time duck stamp contest winner, he is the youngest brother in the legendary Hautman duck stamp dynasty. Both his brothers, Joe and Bob, have also won the contest (1992 and 1996), prompting Norm Gunderson, duck stamp aspirant and husband of police chief Marge in "Fargo," to complain that although he was entered, "one of those Hautmans" would probably take it again.

Hautman is a handsome, Chris O'Donnell, white-bread-soul kinda guy. He is recognized and asked for autographs as he wanders through this crowd, but he acknowledges that, depending on where he goes, he sometimes gets no play.

"New York, for instance," Hautman says, thoughtfully. They are less well versed in the migratory bird arts there.

The competition also lures non-hunters, like Silver Spring artist John R. Sander, an official at the State Department. He carves decoys, even competes at the decoy carving world championship held in Ocean City every year.

Sander disagrees that hunters care most about the bird. "Obviously they are not stupid," he says. "They know that if you ruin all the wetlands, you're not going to have anything to shoot at anymore."

Duality. The duck stamp contest has it.

This year's competition was open to paintings of mottled ducks and black scoters. It got 243 entries. Since it is a government-sponsored program, of course there are layers of rules, regulations and lawyerly oversight. The contest is open to anyone 18 and up for a $100 entry fee, and there is heavy emphasis on biological correctness. Most important, the paintings must feature live birds.

Charles McFadden, 24, of Southeast Washington, began working last week as a secretary in the Duck Stamp Office as part of a federal Job Corps program. He is not involved in the judging, but has developed a critical eye. His favorite was No. 234. "It looks like it's not a painting almost," he explained Wednesday, outside the auditorium so as not to taint the judging process.

McFadden says he has never been hunting, and doesn't anticipate going, since the only way he would hunt would be for food, "and I don't have to do that since they have supermarkets."

By yesterday, the field had been narrowed to 17 and nearly 100 people dotted the auditorium--family members of contestants, last year's junior second runner-up, the woman from the bird-banding lab in Patuxent . . . it is impossible to find a non-bird affiliate in the crowd.

As the judges viewed the final ducks, the crowd held itself in an expectant hush; only sounds of ventilation filtered through the room. A tiebreaker was held for first place. Entry No. 11 was projected onto the big screen, but there was a particular energy around No. 234. As the final score was posted, the audience erupted into applause.

The winner: a mottled duck by Adam Grimm, a 21-year-old art student from Elyria, Ohio, who was in class and had to be reached by phone with the news. He is the youngest ever duck stamp winner (grabbing that title from Jim Hautman), a 1996 junior runner-up, an avid photographer. And a hunter.

After just a week on the job, McFadden says he can see how the love of the outdoors and wildlife might draw folks into the duck stamp world.

And he speculated about the winner. "Maybe he's been doing it for a while, maybe it's a part of his life," McFadden said. After all, people are into all kinds of stuff. "Maybe they like it, like I like football." Which seems only fitting for the Super Bowl of waterfowl and migratory bird art.

'Course, Redskins don't paint footballs. Or shoot them either.

CAPTION: The Peabody Orlando Hotel marching ducks strut their stuff at Interior.

CAPTION: Adam Grimm's painting of a mottled duck took flight as the winner of this year's Federal Duck Stamp Contest.