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
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
Bill Whittle: Socialism —- The Loch Ness Monster of PoliticsFrontPage Magazine, September 28th
And the shocking thing about it was the little model monster they used for the picture was only about this big: about the size of a duck decoy. And it's only knowing that that you can look at the Surgeons Photograph and see what's wrong with it: the...Read more
Elk harvest is 'once-in-a lifetime experience'Omaha World-Herald, September 27th
Daughter Avery, by the way, is named after a duck decoy brand. Welch says his wife, Robyn, is a saint for understanding how important hunting is to him and his dad. “She said our daughter is going to be the same way you are,” Welch said. “It's a big...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
Decoy show: Wild weekend, Pinelands styleBurlington County Times, September 26th
We work to preserve the crafts and skills that resulted from those occupations, like duck decoy carving, boat building, duck calling and retriever training.” More than 200 exhibitors will display and sell baymen-related products including decoys, boats...Read more
National hunting and fishing days coming upBuffalo News, September 20th
A duck decoy contest is set for noon on Saturday. For details, check with Marc Osypian at (585) 301-2818. The New York Power Authority Annual Wildlife Festival, held at the Niagara Power Vista in Lewiston, goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both weekend days...Read more
Elmer Crowell barn becoming a museumCapecodonline, September 14th
He added another section to the barn, presumably a workshop, before he went on to become a full-time duck decoy carver. Crowell became one of the most famous decoy carvers in the world, with some of his work selling for more than $1 million at auction...Read more
Winter sports no longer just a 'guy thing'The Oakland Press, September 13th
Fish-decoy carving, duck-decoy carving, fly-tying and small-boat building are among the daily demonstrations. Visitors can bring their retrievers to participate in the Huron River dock dog-jumping contest and learn dog-handling tips from trainers or...Read more