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.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
National Carousel Association
American Folk Art Museum
The Outsider Art Pages
Folk Art in Bottles
Index of American Design
Clubs & Associations
- Midwest Decoy Collectors Association
- Great Lakes Decoy Association
- The Wheelmen
- Folk Art Society of America
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: Duck Decoys
Source: Google News
Duck Hunters Worried Multimillion-Dollar Business Could Dry Up In California's ...CBS Local, October 17th
Duck decoy sales are already down for the year as well as the popular shotgun sales,”Broadhurst said. Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit that advocates wetland conservation, says the 1 million ducks that fly through the area could be crammed in like sardines...Read more
Guthrie, McMahan, Vincenti, Beulah for Harford County CouncilBaltimore Sun, October 17th
who served on the County Council from 1978 to 1982 and in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1991, and Republican Patrick Vincenti, a relative newcomer to the local political scene, who owns a duck decoy business and has been active with ...Read more
'Good Neighbors' coming to the Berman Museum at Ursinus CollegeThe Phoenix, October 6th
Home is equated to family in other works, including Seneca Weintraut's family portrait encrusted with stained and fraying fabric pieces, or his duck decoy sculptures that incorporate lead anchors fashioned by his father. Family roles and relationships...Read more
Ducks Unlimited says thanksBeaver Dam Daily Citizen, October 6th
Special thanks to Terrill Knaack for his canvasback sketch donation used on the program cover, as well as donating the original to our live auction, and to Russell Meyer for his hand carved wood duck decoy also in the live auction. Russ will again have...Read more
Tony Markosky and Bruce Ozar: The eagle has landed on Huckleberry LaneThe Weston Forum, October 3rd
Mr. Markosky's carving and whittling hobbies have earned him the distinction of being named a world champion duck decoy carver. In the late 1980s, Mr. Markosky took first prize for his carving of a Hooded Merganser male drake duck at the Ward World ...Read more
Woman finds out her duck decoy is worth thousandskfor.com, October 1st
OKLAHOMA CITY – NewsChannel 4 viewers stopped by Trash or Treasure today to find out how much their items are really worth. Check if you have any treasures around your house, they could be worth money! Bring your antiques to local antique expert ...Read more
Reliving memories by walking flea marketLebanon Daily News, September 29th
But that's as rare as finding a $20,000 duck decoy in the dollar-box heap. Most of these dealers know exactly what they have and how low they'll go to part with their wares. For real deals, you have to hit the amateurs at lawn and garage sales, where...Read more
Ocean County Decoy and Gunning Show celebrates fading Shore traditionThe Star-Ledger, September 27th
At the head of the Barnegat Bay, that's where hunters use a red head drake, he said. Farther south in the bay in the Tuckerton area, a Shourds Canada goose would be more popular. And there is the black duck decoy for hunting in the Absecon area, he said...Read more