Duck decoys fly beyond utility: they’re art

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A Blue-winged Teal by Paul Lipke dates to about 1940. $4,000. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Schmidt, Inc.

The origin of the decoy in America as we know it today lies in early American history, but not with the early settlers as might be reasonably assumed. Rather it pre-dates the American pioneer by at least 1,000, perhaps 2,000 years. In 1924, at an archeological site in Nevada, the Lovelock Cave excavations yielded a group of 11 decoys beautifully preserved in protective containers. Among this group of decoys were some stuffed skins, but there were 11 totally artificial decoys fashioned of twisted and bundled tulle rushes or bulrushes (reeds) and feathers in a startlingly realistic form that is unmistakably that of a Canvasback duck. The careful manner of their storage preserved them for us to enjoy an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 years later. More importantly, the extreme care the early natives took in the preservation of their duck decoys suggests the critical importance to them of duck hunting. The obtaining of the meat of wildfowl must have been an important factor in their survival.

When the first settlers came to North America their survival was just as dependent upon hunting wild game for food as it was for the Indians. It did not take them long to notice the various methods the Indians used to lure wildfowl within bow and arrow range. They used a little of everything, from piles of rocks to clumps of mud and dead birds to make likenesses of their prey. Quick to seize upon the idea, those early settlers just as quickly improved it. They began to fashion likenesses of their prey out of different materials, ultimately finding that wood was an ideal raw material. Thus the carving of wildfowl decoys was born out of necessity for food.

It is not likely that those early Americans carved a bird likeness and then said, “Aha, a decoy.” The lures were called many things, but the word “decoy” was not yet in their vocabulary. Just when the word did come into common use is not precisely known, but its etymology or origin is known. Its roots are European, in particular Dutch. Decoy is derived from the Dutch word used to describe a cage-like affair into which hunters in boats drove the birds. Later, domesticated ducks were placed inside to lure unsuspecting wildfowl into it. The name given to this cage was ende-kooi. This method was used before the advent of guns in wildfowl hunting.

Among the first writings of North American hunting to mention decoys was a letter from an official of the government of the then-French colony of Newfoundland dated 1687. In describing a hunting expedition, he detailed a blind he called a “Hutt” and went on to say: “For a decoy they have the skins of geese, Bustards and ducks, dry’d and stuff’d with Hay. The two feet being made fast with two Nails to a small piece of a light plank, which floats around the Hutt.” Historical records indicate wooden decoys were in general use as early as the 1770s, but it seems likely based upon the 1687 letter that they would have been widely used before then. Up to the middle of the 1800s, there was not sufficient commercial demand for decoys to enable the carvers to make a living at selling them, so most decoys were made for themselves and friends.

The middle of the 19th century saw the birth of the market gunners. These men were in the business of providing markets with the hundreds of thousands of birds necessary to feed the increasing North American population. These hunters, using huge guns and much of the time deploying rigs of hundreds of decoys, killed hundreds of birds of any sort in one outing. There were no game laws at the time and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of wildfowl provided them with a living and the population of the larger Eastern Seaboard cities with relatively cheap meat. The market hunters and other hunters killed anything that flew, from Red Breasted Robins and Passenger Pigeons to the majestic Heron and Whistling Swan. Their activities are usually associated with the Chesapeake Bay area, but this slaughter was taking place in all the major flyways.

The sad result of this indiscriminate destruction of wildfowl is that the coup de grace was administered to many bird species, rendering them extinct. Some others are on the endangered list as a result. A few examples are Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, and the Heath Hen. The United States Congress, with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, outlawed the killing of waterfowl for sale.

During the market-gunning period, many carvers began making a living with their decoys and the first factory-made decoys came into existence. The huge numbers of decoys needed to supply the market hunters (who often utilized up to 500-600 decoys at a time) and the rising numbers of hunters for sport or sustenance made commercial decoy carving possible.

Following the passage of the 1918 act came the demise of the factory decoys of the day. The large numbers of decoys needed declined because of the act and many of the smaller commercial carvers had ceased to ply their trade by the 1920s. There were a few of these small, one- or two-man or family operations that continued to carve birds, and with the great increase in the popularity of sport hunting, the commercial carvers soon found the demand for their production rising. Some of these craftsmen continued to work right on up into the 1950s.

Today a few truly great contemporary carvers carry on their tradition. They produce incredibly intricate, lifelike birds. The serious contemporary carvers’ products have to meet strenuous requirements, making the decoy such that it could be hunted over. The prices these carvings command make it unlikely that they will float anywhere but in a competition water tank. What these contemporary carvings represent is that decoy carving is one of the few early American folk arts that has survived into our modern fast-paced times and is still being pursued.

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More Images:

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Alvin "Gunner" Meekins, Hooper's Island, Md., carved this Merganser pair. They are in original paint with small cracks and minor wear. $550. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Schmidt, Inc.
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A Wood Duck pair by Madison Mitchell is signed and dated 1983. They are all original. $3,250. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Schmidt, Inc.

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