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”)

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]

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]

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    

Rare 17" Awesome Form C1890 John J.r. Wells Hollow 17-oz Toronto Wood Duck DecoyAntique Double Floor Safe - Vintage 1915 York Safe - Decoy Safe Fully Rigged; "very Early" C1950 Walter Snow Canvasback Wood Duck Decoy MichiganVintage Mason Hollow Body Mallard Hen Premier Grade Duck DecoyMint! Superb Original Paint C1957 "reg Bloom" Wood Duck Decoy Kingston OntarioVintage Gus Moak Wisconsin Hollow Body Canvasback Drake Duck DecoyBlackduck Duck Decoy Drake Delaware River Rick Brown Brick Twnshp NjMarv Meyer Carved Duck Call (decoy Maker)Antique Premier Mason Blackduck Duck Decoy Estate Vintage Red Head Drake Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell S&d 1958 O.p.Antique Tin Plover Dove Hunting Shorebird Decoy, Primitive, 19th Century VintageMadison Mitchell Canvasback Drake Decoy (1978)Marv Meyer Cherry Burl Duck Call (decoy Maker)Vintage Frank Deroeven Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy Original Paint Ontario Ca.Superb Paint! C1930 Ontario "hen Bufflehead" Hollow Wood Duck Decoy Smiths FallsVintage Primitive Mason Wooden Duck Decoy J Eastman Glass EyesVintage Frank Schmidt Redhead Drake Duck Decoy Michigan Op Raised WingsPrimitive Antique Wooden Duck Decoy, No ReserveVintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By George "wash" Barnes Ca.1900's Great Condition, Early 1905 Mason Factory "tack Eye Hen Redhead" Wood Duck DecoyVintage Ed Pearson Canvasback Duck Decoy Shorebird Art AntiqueWooden Blue Bill Vintage Duck DecoyVintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell S&d 1972 O.p. Transformers G1 Terrorcon Blot W/ Decoy Mosc Afa 80Marv Meyer Birdseye Maple Duck Call (decoy Maker)Vintage Mallard Drake Duck Decoy By Charlie Bryan Ca. 1960's O.p.Vintage Miles Hancock Miniature Duck Decoy, Signed And Dated, No. 3 Evans Evan Mallard Drake Duck Decoy Wi Wisconsin Vintage Waterfowl HuntingVintage Delaware River Hollow Black Duck Decoy By Unknown Carver O.p. Ca.1890'sAntique Anderson Decoys California Sheet Metal Pintail Duck Decoy 1920's RareMojo Mallard Drake Motion Duck Decoy PolymerLoon Bird Sculpture Carving Wood Duck Decoy Folk Art Randy Tull Ducks UnlimitedOversize Red Breast Merganser Decoy, Steve Morey DecoyVintage Frank Schmidt Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy Michigan Lots Of Op Nice FormMute Swan 1/4 Size Duck Decoy Delaware River Rick Brown Brick Twnshp NjDuck Decoy Mold American Decoys Mag DiverAntique Canvasback Drake Decoy With BrandKen Harris Painted Wood Duck DecoyMojo Outdoors Lot Of 2 Green Wing Teal Duck Decoy Vintage Flying Duck Taxidermy Bird Mount Wood Pheasant Decoy Goose MallardAntique Duck Decoy Carved Folk Art Mallard Original Paint & Patina C1880-1920 Mojo Outdoors Voodoo Dove DecoyVintage Frank Schmidt Canvasback Hen Duck Decoy Michigan Lots Of Op Good FormTransformers G1 Terrorcon Cutthroat W/ Decoy Mosc Afa 8519th Century L.i. Ny Workn Shorebird Decoy W/ Square Nails Org PaintOld Wood Duck Decoy Mason HaysAntique Vintage Scaup Duck Decoy New Jersey No ReserveMojo Outdoors™ Mojo Teal DecoyVintage Joe Momney Drake Mallard Duck Decoy Original Paint Wallaceburg OntarioNice Ca.1923 Gene Hendrickson Northfield, N.j. Hollow Carved Black Duck Decoy NrAntique/vintage/old Heavy Iron Duck Decoy Door StopAntique Bluebill Duck, Hen, Decoy - Mason Decoy Factory, Detroit, Mi C 1920sVintage Wooden Duck Decoy W/glass Eyes Old W/lead Weight Vintage George W. Randall Shorebird Decoy Duck Art AntiqueVintage Presson Flying Duck Taxidermy Bird Mount Pheasant Decoy Goose MallardVintage Blue Bill Drake Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell Ca 1960's O.p. "branded"Mojo Floater Motion Mallard Duck Decoy PolymerAntique Duck Decoy Carved Folk Art Glass Eyes Orig Paint Lead & Leather Tie 1900Folk Art Orig Capt Vernon Bryant Signed Hand Carved Wood Fox Decoy Sculpture YqzVtg Tom Taber Hersey Kyle Jr Mallard Duck Decoy 21" Long Signed

Recent News: Duck Decoys

Source: Google News

Salt + Smoke Serves BBQ in the Delmar Loop
Riverfront Times, August 19th

Paintings of animals on the range adorn the muted blue walls and shelves filled with folded-up blue jeans, a duck decoy and various other old-timey items give off a hip vintage vibe. Nico's polish still shines through — Salt + Smoke is on the upscale...Read more

Dr. Robert Wayne 'Bob' Wilken
Fairmont Sentinel, August 15th

Together, they enjoyed their family, travel, golf, duck decoy and antique collecting and of course Duck football, basketball and track. He leaves behind a host of friends, not only in Eugene, but back in Minnesota, and his family who loved and adored him...Read more

100%terschelling produces social design projects for dutch festival
Designboom, August 15th

social design, innovation, and sustainability presented in the most tangible and down to earth way are at the heart of '100%terschelling'. because of these characteristics, the brand fits perfectly within the atmosphere of terschelling's oerol festival...Read more

Defiance Area Youth for Christ Auction
Continental eNews, August 12th

hand carved cork wood duck decoy by Master Carver Dave Cline Jr., Stihl chainsaw, Craftsman hedge trimmer, NEMCO popcorn popper, Duck Commander calls, Duck Dynasty items, many concert tickets for various groups, Huntington University $1000.00 ...Read more

Art on the Square features arts of all types
Current in Noblesville, August 12th

One local group of artists, the Nickel Plate Boys, showed various art forms under the same tent. Comprised of four men – John Reynolds, oil painter; Bruce Neckar, drawer; John Bundy, duck decoy carver, and Greg Adams, builder of rustic willow furniture...Read more

Duck decoys, calls on display at show
Shreveport Times, August 11th

Decoys like these will be on display at the Louisiana Duck Decoy Show on Aug. 23 in Baton Rouge. (Photo: Submitted photo ). CONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE. The annual Louisiana Duck Decoy Show is slated for Aug. 23 at the ...Read more

On the hunt for art? Decoys, paintings, prints, jewelry on show at Open Studio ...
WatertownDailyTimes.com, July 29th

ALEXANDRIA BAY — Glenn Sweet, a third-generation carver, made his first duck decoy when he was 10 years old under the tutelage of his grandfather. At 13, Mr. Sweet began making and selling his decoys professionally. After decades of building a ...Read more

Duck decoy preservation among grant winners
BurlingtonFreePress.com, July 22nd

Five humanities grants totaling more than $1 million have been awarded to Vermont academics and the Shelburne Museum, the National Endowment for the Humanities has announced. -DECOY-11-C1.jpg_20090310.jpg. Samuel T. Barnes, Swan decoy, ca...Read more