As a political cartoonist in the early 1900s, Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling’s primary interests were political corruption and environmental conservation; needless to say, the two often intermingled. As a hunter and fisherman, Darling was a fierce advocate for wise land use, and he understood that intelligent regulations could insure the viability of wildlife for generations to come.
His cartoons earned him three Pulitzer Prizes, but perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments was being tapped by Franklin Roosevelt to head up the U.S. Biological Survey, the predecessor of today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In that position, Darling focused squarely on habitat preservation and restoration as well as game management, all of which led to the establishment of national game refuges throughout the United States.
Darling often wintered on Sanibel and Captiva , and he built a winter home on Captiva, so it was only appropriate that one of the earliest national wildlife refuges—the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge—was renamed in his honor.
The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (1 Wildlife Dr., 239/472-1100, www.fws.gov/dingdarling , education center 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily Jan.–Apr., 9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily May–Dec., free; Wildlife Drive 7:30 a.m.–sunset Sat.–Thurs., $5 per vehicle) is a permanent home or migratory stopover for more than 50 species of birds, and in the winter the mudflats and waterfront trees are thick with spoonbills, oyster catchers, storks, ibis, and other birds. There is also a diversity of mammal and reptile life within the refuge, but bird-watching is one of the primary activities.
To that end, the refuge’s Wildlife Drive—a five-mile circuit that’s open to automobiles—is quite popular, especially during the winter. It allows visitors a leisurely travel through the park’s mangrove forests and mudflats in their own vehicles; a tour company also provides tram tours along the drive. There are also several hiking trails and two canoe trails for those who want to explore on their own.
The visitors center is also an impressive sight, with exhibits that give perspective on Darling’s career as well as the variety of wildlife within the refuge. Unlike many other NWRs, there’s a pronounced sense of mission at the Darling refuge; the staff and volunteers are exceedingly friendly and helpful, and their enthusiasm is contagious.