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    

4 Antique, Harry Monk, Folk Art Carved & Painted, Flattie Loon Decoys, Nr 5 Vintage Very Old Duck Decoy Wood Carved Blackduck Duck Decoy "preener" Tuckerton School Rick Brown Brick Township NjGw Teal Duck Decoy Matched Pair Delaware River Rick Brown Brick NjExtremely Rare Old Hand Painted Wildfowler Blue Wing Teal Duck Decoy Jewelry BoxVintage Strater & Sohier Tin Shorebird Decoy With Original StakeVintage Branded Canvasback Duck Decoy Pair Heinefield JoinerVtg Wildfowler Old Saybrook Teal Drake Duck Decoy Carved Sculpture Rare FigurineAntique Thomas Barnard Canvasback Drake DecoyAtlantic Brant Duck Decoy Tuckerton School Rick Brown Brick Township NjAntelope Decoys Buck And Doe Montana Decoys Bow Hunting DecoyWooden Carved Duck Decoy H.conklinLot Of Two (2) Vintage Doves Duck Decoys Mason Factory Style Orginal PaintAntique Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By Sam Barnes Ca.1900 Havre De Grace, MdShoveler Duck Decoy Matched Pair Delaware River Rick Brown Brick NjWidgeon Duck Decoy Matched Pair Of Swimmers Delaware River Rick Brown Brick NjPair Bryant Hand Carved Wooden Canvasback Duck Decoy Weighted Hunting Red HeadMason's Wood Crow Decoy Mason's Decoy Factory "a-1"Ruddy Duck Decoy Matched Pair Tuckerton School Rick Brown Brick Township NjCanvasback Duck Decoy Matched Pair Tuckerton School Rick Brown Brick Township NjAntique Wooden Wood Duck DecoyGadwall Duck Decoy Matched Pair Delaware River Rick Brown Brick NjWooden Carved Duck Decoy Signed Bob BiddleRingneck Duck Decoy Matched Pair Delaware River Rick Brown Brick NjOld Chesapeake Bay Canvasback Duck DecoyVery Old Wooden Drake Duck Decoy Hand Carved Hunting Antique VintageNice Pintail Duck Decoy Unused Animal Trap Co With Original Stamp On The BottomVintage Ferman Eyre Black Duck Decoy Brockville Ontario - Original PaintJoey Jobes Signed Antique Style Canvasback Diver Duck Decoy - Mint! No Reserve!Redhead Duck Decoy Matched Pair Delaware River Rick Brown Brick NjRedhead Duck Decoy "preener" Tuckerton School Rick Brown Brick Township NjWooden Carved Sleeping Duck Decoy H.conklinVintage Cork Body Wood Bottom And Head Canadian Goose 22 1/2" Decoy Glass Eyes Tom Taber & John Fairfield 1986-87 Series Medallion Pintail Duck Decoy SignedDucharme Duck Decoy, Canvasback Decoy, Handcarved By Casey Edwards Vintage Paul Arness Wooden Morning Dove Decoy (super Nice Bird )Wooden Carved Duck Decoy H.conklinVintage 16" Ken Harris Mallard Male Duck Decoy Hunting Painted Wood Glass Eye Rare C1930 Butch Schramm Drake Bluebill, Wood Duck Decoy St Clair FlatsMojo Hunting 2 Duck Decoy Decoys W Wings Triple Metal Poles Battery Holders CaseL L Bean Cork Canada Goose DecoyUpper Bay Wing Duck Canvasback Duck DecoySigned "tom Taber" Three Carved Mallard Duck Decoys Wall Hanging PlaqueHerters 1893 Wood Duck Mallard Drake DecoyBill Schauber Miniature Canvasback Decoy PairHand Carved Duck Decoy Hooded Merganser Signed And Vintage??Full Size Hand Crafted Wood Duck Decoy - Unbranded1975 R Madison Mitchell Wood Carved Working Duck Decoy Havre De Grace MdAntique Canvas Duck Butt DecoyWooden Carved Sleeping Duck Decoy H.conklinDetroit,mi Market Hunter,hollow Canvasback,,.duck Decoy, Hunting,sports, VintageAafa Fine Life Size Signed Hand Carved Wood Seagull Original Paint Decoy Lindberg Wwi Decoy Ship - Sealed Vintage Kit 19557 Vintage Unfinished Wood Carved Canvasback Mallard Unknown Wood Duck Decoy HeadDuck Decoy By Unknown CarverAntique Mason Duck Decoy Original PaintWhite Rock Snow Goose DecoysVintage Wisconsin Bluebill Wooden Duck Decoy With Hollow Body6 Original Brooks Profile Dove Decoys Silhouette Clip On F C Bones In BoxVintage 13 Inch Long Mallard Duck Decoy Engraved Lrc