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”)

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]

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]

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    

Antique Cast Iron Canvasback Redhead Sinkbox Decoy Original PaintLeader Shotgun Sights & Tin Dead Shot Duck Scene Sears Roebuck Decoy Rifle LymanSuperb 100% Orig. Paint C1907 Mason Factory ~nice Drake Bluebill Wood Duck DecoySuperb 100% Orig. Paint C1907 Mason Factory ~scarce Hen Bluebill Wood Duck DecoySuperb 100% Org Paint ~rare Late C1920 Mason Factory ~canvasback Wood Duck DecoyRare Early "superb Orig Paint" C1941 Wildfowler "rare Goldeneye" Wood Duck DecoyMason Canvasback Challenge Grade Hen Duck DecoyAntique Cast Iron Original Maryland Upper Chesapeake Bay Sinkbox Decoy 15"Awesome Early New Jersey Red Head Duck DecoyAntique 19th C Canvasback Redhead Working Hand Carved Wood Maryland Decoy Rare Early "superb Orig Paint" C1941 Wildfowler "rare Goldeneye" Wood Duck DecoyUnique Chesapeake Bay Canvasback Duck Decoy Low Reserve "sy"Wonderful Wildfowler Drake Widgeon Duck Decoy Original PaintAntique Vintage Duck Decoy West Coast Pintail Decoy Ruddy Duck Bud Coppedge Virginia Decoy Found In Ne Hunted Over Very NiceAntique Vintage Duck Decoy Bluebill Wisconsin Rock Hall Canvasback Duck Decoy By Jess Urie Original PaintWek Will Kirkpatrick Shore Bird Decoy Bay Signed **no Reserve**Awesome Upper Bay Bluebill Duck DecoyWonderful Vintage Michigan Drake Canvesback Duck Decoy / Frank Schmidt !Mason Decoy Black Duck Painted Eye Vintage Duck Decoy Antique Decoy Duck MasonDave Rhodes Dunlin Shorebird Decoy/decoysUnique Chesapeake Bay Canvasback Hen Duck Decoy Low Reserve "sy"Early 1900's J . R. Wells Toronto , Ontario Mallard Hollow Duck Decoy No ReserveWek Will Kirkpatrick Shore Bird Decoy Bay Signed **no Reserve** #2Mid 1900's Primitive Hand Carved & Painted Goldeneye Wooden Duck Decoy YqzRare Hollow Drake Redhead Duck Decoy From Quebec W/ Exc. Scratch Paint & Form NrAwesome Early Large Heavy Canadian Goose Duck Decoy Virginia Iron KeelPair Gundelfinger Canvasback Duck DecoysNorth Carolina Battery Redhead Duck DecoyMint "superb 100% Org Paint" Signed 1988 Brad Snyder "goldeneye" Wood Duck DecoyFactory High Head Canvasback Duck Decoy Original Paint No ReserveOutstanding Reg Bloom Kingston, Ontario Hen Bluebill Duck Decoy D.w Nichol StyleN.c. Brant Goose Duck Decoy Hunt Club DecoyDucks Unlimited Miniature Decoys.One Vintage L.l Bean Cork Coastal Female Mallard Decoy Out Stretched NeckMontana Decoy Big Red Cow Decoy New 2015 Antelope Hunting Goose Hunt BlindAvery Lifesize Ghg Greenhead Gear Duck Decoys Mallard DecoysHeavy Large Canvasback/ Redhead Nc Battery Duck Decoy No ReserveFantastic Steve C. Merritt Jester Style Drake Red-breasted Merganser Duck DecoyAntique Mason Premier Duck Decoy Mallard Hand Carved Painted Wood1940's Spread Wing Flying Canvasback Hollow Wood Duck Decoy Orig Paint 29" Long Awesome Sleek Bluebill Duck Decoy Original PaintUnique Upper Bay Cecil County Canvasback Duck Decoy BrandedVintage Folding Duck Decoys, Boxed Set, Jw Reynolds 1910Dave Rhodes Dowitcher Shorebird Decoy/decoysJim Pierce Preening Brant Duck Decoy Vintage Wood Duck Decoy Big Sky Carvers Signed Sonya Hatfield Mallard Cork Widgeon Decoy - DrakeAwesome Steve C. Merritt Doug Jester Style Buffllehead Chincoteague Duck Decoy2 Herters Model 72 Ultimate Armor Mallard Duck Decoys - UsedDudley Style Drake Can Duck Decoy-ex Chincoteague Va MuseumMojo Mallard Drake And Hen Used Decoys With New Poles, Batteries, Charters EtcVintage Wood Duck Decoy Big Sky Carvers Signed S.s.huntsman Vintage "barnes" Canvasback Drake Wooden Wing Duck Decoy Circa 1900Dave Rhodes Eskimo Curlew Shorebird Decoy/decoysAnthony Hillman Cape May Warbler Songbird Decoy Shorebird Duck Owl Crow CarvingOld Vintage Antique Wooden Working Duck DecoyPair Ed Sampson Minature Wood Duck DecoysVintage Duck Decoy With Head Missing, 13-3/4" Long By 4-1/2" Wide

Recent News: Duck Decoys

Source: Google News

A Confusing Look at Folk Art and American Modernism
New York Times, July 30th

These include paintings, sculptures, hooked rugs, quilts, wooden toys, weather vanes, a duck decoy and an overabundance of painted furniture. Mixed in among these is a smaller number of works by a handful of early-20th-century American Modernists, like ...Read more

A collector of experiences
Muskogee Daily Phoenix, July 26th

Well, I'm proud to be . . . Duane Cain holds a handmade duck decoy at D&G Vintage Collectibles, which he operates with his wife, Gwendolyn. Well, I'm proud to be . . . Duane Cain holds a pair of handmade fishing lures he sells. He said he enjoys fishing...Read more

North American Decoys at Auction
Maine Antique Digest, July 20th

Last year in St. Charles, Guyette & Deeter sold a $690,000 wood duck decoy by the Mason Decoy Factory. In the past decade, the company has sold more than six decoys for over $500,000 each. But blockbuster prices are a rare bird these days. This year at ...Read more

Hampton Historical Society marks 90 years
Foster's Daily Democrat, July 18th

Participants could also check out the duck decoy carvings by resident Dave Weber, a fire museum, Leavitt Barn and beach cottage, as well as a table with works by the local artisans sponsored by Hampton Arts Network. Resident Pat Triggs strolled...Read more

In from the Outdoors: Q&A with Eric and Melissa Bartlett
Press Herald, July 12th

Their four dogs, even the 7-month-old black Labrador, are like small robots that know the specific steps required in a retriever-hunting test. At the sound of Melissa's command, these dogs watch intently for the “mark,” the duck decoy dropped somewhere...Read more

'Duck Dynasty' recap: 'Search 'n Decoy'
Examiner.com, July 8th

The duck decoy storyline was kind of unusual in that the normally frugal multi-millionaire, Phil Robertson, was purchasing duck decoys from an eccentric artist for $1,000 apiece. With a discount for bartering aged ducks whose insides had turned to...Read more

Duck decoy creators carve their spot in new company
Post-Bulletin, June 26th

Sam Nottleman and his wife Gayle (a.k.a Lilly) work together to make their decoys with Sam carving and Gail painting the works. Nottleman credits his extensive collection of mounted ducks, including the Chinese Mandarin duck and carving they are...Read more

Murder-suicide leaves woman dead in duck hunting decoy bag
FOX 9 News, March 12th

A woman was found dead inside of a plastic waterfowl decoy bag in an apparent murder-suicide in Norwood Young America, Minnesota. According to the Carver County sheriff's office, a roommate came back to the house at 920 Preserve Blvd at about 5 p.m. ...Read more