Birds of a feather flock together. In this case, the cliché rings true, and Native Americans knew it. When the colonists first arrived in North America, they found that the natives were using mud, bulrushes, fowl carcasses, and other materials to create imitations of ducks and other fowl. These imitations attracted live birds, which the hunters would then kill or capture.

Native Americans had been successfully employing this practice for more than 1,000 years, so the colonists began to build on their techniques. Hunting had been rare among commoners in the Old World since most fields and pastures with game belonged to aristocrats, especially in England. Despite the novelty of hunting in the New World for the colonists, the word they eventually used to name their new lifelike lures—“decoys”—came from a Dutch word referring to the cages Old World hunters built to attract and tame wild birds.

By the mid-19th century, most decoys in the New World were made out of wood rather than mud, and commercial and sport hunters alike used them to help lure their prey. Although the style and construction of decoys varied by region and carver, the most common woods used were white pine and white cedar, which were both durable and buoyant.

A carver would craft the general shape of the decoy’s body using a hatchet and then fine-tune it with a long drawknife. He or she—a few carvers enlisted the help of their wives—would create the head separately from a smaller block of wood using an axe, rather than a hatchet; then, the carver would whittle the head down with a jackknife and attach it to the body using nails or long spikes.

Finally, the finished decoy would be sanded, primed, and painted in natural colors to lure fowl effectively. By the time of the Civil War, this technique had matured almost to an art form.

Commercial hunters often owned hundreds of decoys, which they would set out in large numbers to attract as many birds as possible. As sport hunting became more prominent among the wealthy, some carvers began making fewer decoys but of higher quality for this new clientele. Sport hunters wanted decoys that were beautiful, not just useful. Eventually, some carvers began making decoys for purely decorative reasons.

Decoys varied in style from region to region, as the environment and species of a given area dictated their design. Decoys in Maine, for example, were often tougher and more rugg...

Even within regions, decoys could take any one of a number of designs. Some were built to float, and these were generally intended to attract large fowl like ducks and geese. Within this group, some were hollowed out so they would be more buoyant, while others were solid.

Another group of decoys included the stationary “stickups,” which stood on legs in the ground. Still others were two-dimensional profiles that were also designed as stickups. Some of these stickups were nearly four feet tall; floating decoys could be just as long.

Although the carvers who made these decoys were considered craftsmen at the time, decoys have become collectible examples of folk art. The reasons for this change in perception range from the quality of the decoys to events that helped make them scarce.

By 1920, for example, Congress had passed the North American Wildlife Act and North American Migratory Bird Act, which limited hunting and banned commercial hunting of most species altogether. Overnight, the demand for decoys all but disappeared—commercial hunters had been by far the biggest decoy customers.

Decoys became even scarcer in the 1950s and 1960s when mass-produced plastic decoys became available. Because the plastic decoys were cheaper and lighter than wooden decoys (an important consideration when carrying many in a small boat), many hunters discarded or even burned their wooden decoys, which at the time seemed worthless. In recent decades, however, many of these vintage decoys have emerged as collectors’ items.

The value of a decoy depends on a variety of factors, including its condition (both of the paint and of the wood itself), its rarity, and the reputation of the carver. Decoys of some species—like wood ducks and teal—are rarer than others, as are decoys carved in unusual poses like sleeping, swimming, or feeding. Those never actually used for hunting, of course, tend to be in better condition and, thus, more valuable.

The list of carvers is literally endless, but some names stand out above the rest. Perhaps the most famous practitioner was Elmer Crowell (1862-1951), a masterful carver and painter who lived in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His decoys generally have carved wings and glass eyes, and he often used a rasp to imitate feathers on the back of his decoys’ heads and on their breasts. In 2000, a preening Canada goose that he carved sold at an auction for $684,500, the current world record for a decoy.

Other notable carvers include Lathrop T. Holmes, who used a limited but expressive palette of colors. “Gus” Wilson’s attention to detail was almost unrivaled, while many of the approximately 10,000 decoys in 50 years made by the Ward Brothers of Maryland were purely decorative. Charles Perdew and his wife, Edna, were a team—he carved and she painted. And Ken Anger perfected the technique of using a rasp to make his decoys look soft and realistic.

In addition to hand-carved decoys, some of the high-quality decoys produced in late-19th-century factories are also highly collectible. The main factories included Mason, Victor, Dodge, Stevens, Peterson, Evans, and Reynolds. Most of these factories used either a duplicating lathe, an assembly line, or both.

Although many of the more successful companies’ decoys were quite similar to one another, some particularly innovative examples are valuable today. One, for example, flapped its wings—a terrible failure for a hunter, but a great find for a collector. Another prize is a factory-made rubber decoy from 1867.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum's website showcases current and past exhibitions along with their permanent collection… [read review or visit site]

National Carousel Association

National Carousel Association

Since 1973, the National Carousel Association has been dedicated to preserving and restoring carousels and carousel… [read review or visit site]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [read review or visit site]

The Outsider Art Pages

The Outsider Art Pages

A modern look at folk and outsider art with a focus on what people are doing to keep these traditions alive. The si… [read review or visit site]

Folk Art in Bottles

Folk Art in Bottles

Whether you call them Bottle Whimseys, Whimsey Bottles, Puzzle Bottles, or Whimsies, this site showcases great folk… [read review or visit site]

Index of American Design

Index of American Design

The Index of American Design project (1935-1942) was an effort to catalog American decorative arts objects from the… [read review or visit site]

Stoveburner.com

Stoveburner.com

A stunning collection of 162 images of stoveburners, those corroded cast iron elements that power stoves, broilers,… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

"mint" Rare Cranmer Model 1963 Wildfowler Factory "hollow Cedar" Wood Duck DecoyAntique Mason Pintail Drake O.p. Duck Decoy Estate Illinois River Decoy By Robert Elliston."mint" Rare Special Order 1963 Wildfowler Factory "hollow Cedar" Wood Duck DecoyMint Superb, Signed 1972 Fred Bradshaw "ward Brothers" Wood Duck Decoy Crisfield"superb" 100% Orig Paint "signed" C1940 Paul Gibson "canvasback" Wood Duck DecoyMason Drake Wigeon Duck Decoy Estate Old H Perdew 1909 Henry Ill Crow Duck Call DecoySuperb 100% Orig Paint -scarce Hen C1940 Paul Gibson -canvasback Wood Duck DecoyAntique Mason Factory Premier Black Duck Wood Decoy Circa 1915 Detroit Mi. OldAntique Authentic Folk Art Carved & Painted Working Virginia Shorebird DecoyOld Mason Duck Decoy Hunting Cabin East Coast Rustic Gun Club Mallard Tack EyeVintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By Bob Mcgaw Ca. 1930's O.p.Vintage Black Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell S&d 1950Rick Brown Original Hollow Canada Goose Duck Decoy DecoysOld Wooden Redhead Drake Duck DecoyVintage Duck Decoys Shorebird Art AntiqueCanvasback Duck Decoy Charles Nelson Banard Havre De Grace Md Circa 1910Tom Taber Ducks Unlimited 1986-87 Northern Pintail Decoy / Wooden Carved WoodRare Mason Golden Hen O.p. Duck Decoy Estate Vintage "pair" High Head Canvasback Duck Decoys By Bob Litzenberg S&d 1982Vintage Owl Decoy Old Primitive Hand Carved Wooden Original PaintVintage Mason Duck Decoy-green WingAntique Broadbill Duck Decoy Barnegat/southern Nj Circa 1880Old Duck Decoy Mason Hunting Cabin East Coast Rustic Gun Club Blue Bill OriginalAntique Mason Painted Eye Bluewing Teal O.p. Duck Decoy Estate Broadbill Duck Decoy Cobb / Hog Island Virginia Circa 1870sPr Marty Collins Carved & Painted Wood Squaw Duck Decoys After Joseph LincolnLot Of 19 Duck Calls / Bag Of Reeds / Decoy Depth Adjusters & Cord Crimps L@@kRare Early Mason Oldsquaw? Decoy Pre-1900Vintage "pair" Blue Bill Duck Decoys By Charlie Bryan S&d 199015" Rare Superb 1895 Wood Pigeon Dove Gunning Decoy Duck Great Britian ShorebirdAntique Canvasback Drake DecoyVintage Michigan Saginaw Bay Duck DecoyRick Brown Original Plover Shorebird Decoy Signed 2002 No ReserveOld As Found Drake Wisconsin Original Wood Duck Decoy Mason? 4ur Call CollectionAntique American Folk Art Decoy Owl Early 20th Century. Nr!!!Darkfeather Freedman Canada Goose Decoy Duck Decoy Glass Eyes Wood Hand CarvedAntique Goldeneye Drake DecoyAntique Blackduck Duck Decoy Barnegat Nj Circa 1900Vintage Canvasback Drake DecoyVintage Red Head Drake Duck Decoy By John "daddy" Holly Ca. 1880's Antique Working Duck Decoy Original Black Paint Glass Eyes Antique Old Saybrook Wildfowler Duck Decoy No Reserve!Herter's Model 72 Millennium Magnum Decoys/ Lot Of 8Antique Hen Oldsquaw Duck Decoy New England Circa 1890s MassachusettsLarge Body Old Original Unknown Duck Decoy CallDuck Decoy Feeding Hen Greenwing Teal By William GoenneAntique Old Saybrook Wildfowler Duck Decoy No Reserve!A Scarce Antique Trulock & Harriss Tru-iss English Wood Pigeon Decoy Circa 19123 Ps Olt Duck Goose Call Key Hole D-2 Pat Date Calls 4ur Decoy Lanyard Band Col Old Original Hen Wood Duck Decoy 4ur Shell Box Call Collection Mason?Toni Taylor Young Ducks Unlimited Carved Decoy SignedVintage "pair" Red Head Duck Decoys By Robert "bob" Litzenberg S&d 1984 O.p.Mint "rare Preener" Signed C1992 Capt Harry Jobes Wood Duck Decoy Havre De GraceSigned Miles Hancock Brant Duck Decoy Chincoteague Antique Broadbill Duck Decoy Southern Nj Circa 1920Vintage 1940's Herters Pair Coots Mud Hen, Duck Decoy, Wood, Glass Eyes BalsaVintage Black Duck Decoy By Robert "bob" Litzenberg S&d 1982 O.p.Very Early Shore Bird Decoy, All Original Paint And Condition

Recent News: Duck Decoys

Source: Google News

New clue for Winter Wonderland scavenger hunt
Marshfield News-Herald, December 17th

MARSHFIELD — Each year, Rotary Winter Wonderland features a scavenger hunt to find Marshall, a mallard duck decoy. The weekly clue is published each Thursday in the Marshfield News-Herald on the Communities page. It also is in Friday's newspaper in ...Read more

Waterfowl: 9 Tips for Hunting Mallards in Cut Corn Fields
Field and Stream, December 15th

In most parts of the country, the best field duck decoy is a goose decoy. They're highly visible, and ducks will come in to geese. Use either Canadas or snows, depending on which you have in your area. Put them around the blinds to help hide them...Read more

Winner named in Winter Wonderland scavenger hunt
Marshfield News-Herald, December 11th

MARSHFIELD — The winner for the second week of the Rotary Winter Wonderland scavenger hunt was Kay Meyers of Wausau who found Marshall, the mallard duck decoy, in the rafters of the Wildwood Zoo information pavilion which is decorated with green ...Read more

Meggett craftsman Tom Boozer's hand-carved decoys are working pieces of art
Charleston Post Courier, December 6th

The secret to carving a wooden duck decoy is to remove everything form the block of wood that doesn't look like a duck, and that means lots of wood shavings on the floor. Blocks of wood waiting to be turned into decoys are stacked inside. There's a...Read more

660 pounds of duck decoys stolen from the Susquehanna River
LancasterOnline, December 2nd

duck decoy. This is one of the decoys stolen from the Susquehanna River some time Nov. 26-27. Notice the large lead sinker and rope around its neck. duck decoy. Matt Kneisley's initials are on at least half of his missing decoys. duck decoy. Another...Read more

Find hidden duck at Rotary Winter Wonderland
Marshfield News-Herald, November 27th

MARSHFIELD — Each year, Rotary Winter Wonderland features a scavenger hunt to find Marshall, a mallard duck decoy. The weekly clue along with the week's winner is published each Thursday in the Marshfield News-Herald on the Communities page...Read more

Pen In Hand: Tule duck decoy: an ancient California craft continues
Tehachapi News, November 26th

Diana Almendariz with different sizes of tule duck decoys she made during a Go Native Day held at Red House BBQ. Photo by Jon Hammond. David Garcia is a Native California craftsman who was in Centennial Plaza recently teaching the ancient skill of ...Read more

VIDEO: Donald Duck decoy used to ticket drivers in New Jersey
WLS-TV, November 12th

VIDEO: Donald Duck decoy used to ticket drivers in New Jersey. VIDEO: Donald Duck decoy used to ticket drivers. Officials in Fort Lee, New Jersey issued dozens of tickets to drivers who failed to stop for this costumed Donald Duck decoy. Embed...Read more