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]

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    

Scarce; Near Mint 100% Original Paint C1910 Mason Factory "teal" Wood Duck DecoySuperb & Very Rare Hen Mallard C1895 Tom Chambers Hollow Toronto Wood Duck DecoyVintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By George "wash" Barnes Ca.1900's Antique Painted Tin Shore Bird DecoyRare Zeke Mcdonald Harsden Island Antique Hollowbody Duck Decoy Michigan 38 / 60Antique Painted Tin Shore Bird DecoyMarv Meyer Buffalo Horn Duck Call (decoy Maker)Vintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By Will Heverin Ca.1900Antique Duck Decoy: Red Head Drake, Orig. Paint, Delaware River Style, 1900s, NrEarly Steve Morey Brant Decoy, Virginia Style Decoy, Folk Art DecoyAntique Primitive Wood Duck Decoy Hand Painted No Weight Head Turns Estate 4/4Folk Art Orig Capt Vernon Bryant Signed Hand Carved Wood Fox Decoy Sculpture YqzHasbro Transformers G1 Generation 1 Technobot Afterburner Moc Decoy C8 ComputronVintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell S&d 1972 O.p. Vintage Redhead Duck Decoy By Jim Holly Ca.1900 Branded "e.thorne"Vintage Canvasback Drake Duck Decoy By Charlie Bryan Ca.1960's O.p. "perdew" Style Pintail Sleeper Hen Duck Wooden Duck Decoy By Charles MooreVintage Duck Decoy Paint Wooden Chris Smith St. Clair Flats Hollow Michigan #39Antique-vintage-factory-old-folk Art-mason-hays-teal-duck DecoyVintage Frank Schmidt Hen Redhead Duck Decoy Michigan Some Op Neat FormAntique Painted Tin Shore Bird DecoyVintage Orig '85 Jan Fitch Signed Hand Carved & Painted Mallard Duck Decoy 2 YqzVintage Maine Wooden Duck Decoy Wood Estate Find Glass EyesVintage Maryland Havre De Grace Chesapeake Bay Painted Steven R Lay Duck DecoyNr- Vintage Signed Tom Taber Hand Carved Wood Duck Glass Eyes Wooden Duck DecoyLadies Jimmy Choo Black & Tan 114decoy Bootie Boots 4.75 Inch Heel Size 6.5 1952 Capt. Harry Jobes Hand Painting Wood Folk Art Working Bird Old Duck DecoyOriginal Mason Challenge Grade Hen Mallard Wooden Duck Decoy Vintage Blue Bill Drake Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell Ca 1960's O.p. "branded"Hersey Kyle Jr Hand Carved Duck Decoy Carved Feathers Tom Taber Partner 16 InchVintage Wooden Duck Decoy Original Paint Glass Eyes Keel WorkingVintage Frank Schmidt Drake Redhead Duck Decoy Michigan Some Op Nice FormMason 4th Grade Bluebill Hen Decoy Original Paint Exc ConditionOriginal Mason Challenge Grade Drake Mallard Wooden Duck Decoy Early Wildfowler Decoy Mallard Drake All Original Old SaybrookVintage Duck Decoy Wooden St.clair Flats Flat Bottom Michigan ? Old Paint Vintage Joe Momney Black Duck Decoy Ontario Mix Of Paint Feather StampingAntique Duck Decoy: Orig. Paint, Americana Folk Art, Signed Angell, C.1890-1910Hand Carved & Signed Shorebird/sandpiper Oregon Decoy Artist "del Smith" 1976Redhead Duck Decoy By Frank Schmidt Detroit Michigan Vintage Antique Folk ArtNorthwind Decoy Sock Flyers W Stake, Body, Support, Head, Snow Goose DecoyRare Mint "signed & Dated" 1968 Chris Sprague Wildfowler Factory Wood Duck DecoyBill Schneck Hand Carved, Painted Duck Decoy "old Squaw" SignedVintage Redhead Hen Duck Decoy By Madison Mitchell S&d 1957 O.p.Vintage 1 Gallon Bail Handle "louis Grebb" Oyster Can Tin Duck Decoy Antique-ventage-factory-old-folk Art-bluebill-evans-duck DecoyDucks Unlimited Tom Taber Wood Duck Decoy 16 " Encore Edition SignedLarge Vintage Decoys Unlimited Duck Goose Hunting Decoy Cast Aluminum MoldAntique Duck Decoy Wooden St.clair Flats Quillen Smith Era Michigan Low HollowVintage Folk Art '83 Orig Signed W.n.p. Carved Wood Canvasback Duck Decoy Nr YqzAntique Duck Decoy Mason Factory Glass Eye Michigan 33 /60 EstateUsed Wonderduck Floating Duck Decoy Motorized, Ghg, Avery, Mojo Spinning WingVintage Wooden Balsa Canada Goose Decoy Glass Eyes Herters BalsaVintage Orig '84 Jan Fitch Signed Hand Carved & Painted Mallard Duck Decoy 1 YqzAntique Primitive Wood Duck Decoy Hand Painted Lead Weighted Estate 2 Of 4Scaup Duck Decoy From North Carolina Or Virginia Ca.1930'sCarved Wood Shore Bird Decoy By WekMojo Outdoors Voodoo Dove DecoyBob Mcgaw Miniature Pintail Duck Decoy Original Tufted Titmouse Carved Wooden Bird Decoy Signed Becker Drift Wood Yqz

Recent News: Duck Decoys

Source: Google News

Decoys get their due as folk art specimens, August 23rd

At the Hale Duck Decoy, a historic site that has been preserved in Cheshire, England, dogs were used to scare ducks into the "pipes," hooped nets overarching the appendages of the pond. In North America, by contrast, the prevalent waterfowl decoy was...Read more

Port Huron Times Herald, August 23rd

19th Annual Heritage Days, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Featuring outdoor 3D archery course; children's activities including fishing at trout pond, learning fly tying, painting bird house or duck decoy; Lenox Fire Department fire safety house; certified...Read more

Maskull Lasserre Reveals Skeletons Inside Old Wooden Statues and Decoys
Visual News, August 21st

From one side they look just as they were intended, but turn them around and a macabre scene awaits. Artist and carver Maskull Lasserre (featured previously) started with a series of old souvenirs and a duck decoy, then in a process he calls “re...Read more

Don't say goodbye to summer just yet
Burlington County Times, August 21st

Catch all the action with pirate shows, take in exhibits and activities including antique boats, duck decoy carving and. more, and participate in pirate-themed sing-alongs. The event is in. Historic Cold Spring Village, 720 Route 9 S., right outside...Read more

Review: Salt + Smoke Distinguishes Itself in the Crowd of New St. Louis Barbecue
Riverfront Times (blog), August 20th

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

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

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 ..., 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