Tools of Deception: A History of American Bird Decoys

Robert Shaw 

"A long time ago," wrote collector Joel Barber in 1934, "an American Indian had a swell idea." That "swell idea" was the decoy, a false bird intended to lure migrating wildfowl within the range of hunters' weapons.

The decoy is the only folk art indigenous to North America. Decoys have always been as essential to American hunters as bows and arrows, shotguns and ammunition. Its pivotal role in North American hunting traditions is without precedent in the world. Unlike quilts, ship and trade figures, weathervanes or carousel figures-all of which originated in Europe-the roots of the decoy lie deep in the American land and its vast natural resources.

Journals and letters of early explorers and settlers tell repeatedly of the incredible abundance of wild game in North America. Reporters from Columbus to Audubon speak of flights of birds that passed overhead all night and of flocks so dense and extensive they literally blocked the sun in passing.

The decoy emerged as a response to that abundance.

We will probably never know just how long ago that original Indian hunter had his idea. Decoys were made by Native Americans at least a thousand years before the first Europeans set foot on this continent, (A group of Indian decoys at least this old are in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian), and they have been an essential part of every American bird hunter's equipment ever since. But the idea of the decoy is undoubtedly even older. And, as Joel Barber put it, "The echo of that great idea still vibrates along the migratory path of all American waterfowl."

Indian decoys were simple but effective. While some were carefully crafted, many were simply improvised in the field-bird skins mounted on floats or sticks, stones piled to suggest heads and bodies, or quickly assembled wooden forms. The Indian idea of the decoy was observed and copied by European settlers, but they soon realized they wanted more durable tools that could be reused season after season. Sometime in the late 1700s, Americans began carving wooden birds, and the decoy as we know it came into being.

Although collectors now focus on individual examples, decoys were made and used in groups called rigs. Depending on the region, water conditions and species sought, a rig could include anywhere from a handful of decoys to several hundred. From the first, decoys were made in two basic forms: floaters and stickups. Floating lures were made to represent many species of swimming game birds, including all types of ducks and geese as well swans and gulls. Stickups, which were mounted on wooden sticks that could be pushed into sand or mud, primarily represented shorebirds such plovers, curlews, yellowlegs, and sandpipers.

The bodies of floating lures were made either of a solid piece of wood or of two pieces hollowed out and joined with nails or dowels. In either case the decoy's head was almost invariably carved separately and attached with nails or a screw or dowel. Hollow lures were lighter and easier to carry; like the boats they were sometimes modeled after, they also floated higher in the water. A weight was usually attached to the bottom of a floating lure to balance it; another weight tied to a lead line at the bird's breast was often added as an anchor to keep it from drifting away out of the gunner's range.

Hunting decoys needed to create a quick impression, to capture the essence of a wild bird's form and plumage at a glance. They were tools, intended to deceive and lure wild birds, and they therefore had to act as symbols of the birds they sought to attract rather than to slavishly imitate their appearance to the human eye. Carvers in different parts of the country followed regional models that evolved over generations of trial and error and were particularly well suited to the needs of local hunters. Water conditions, hunting methods and locally prevalent species varied widely from region to region, so each major hunting area produced its own distinctive forms. A decoy intended for use off the coast of Maine, for example, looks nothing like a bird made to float on the upper Delaware River, and a Louisiana pintail bears little resemblance to one from the Chesapeake Bay. Each carver also invariably brought his own ideas and experiences to his craft, and this combination of regional norms and individual creativity is one of the most fascinating aspects of the decoy. Subtle variations abound and provide abundant material for ongoing study.

The evolution of the American decoy paralleled the development of the United States and Canada in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Decoys were made in response to early America's phenomenal abundance of wild game. The skies of the new countries teemed with birds and provided a ready and seemingly inexhaustible source of food. The greatest wildfowl hunt in the history of the world took place in North America between the end of the Civil War and World War I. A combination of factors made this great hunt possible. The war brought enormous technological advances in weaponry, while the vastly expanded rail systems made it possible for hunters to ship fresh game quickly to city markets. And, because hunting was largely unrestricted, gunners could harvest as many birds as they wished.

Professional market hunters, who might kill a hundred or more birds in a day, supplied the public demand. In addition to ducks and shorebirds, some commercial hunters also sought plume birds like terns and herons, whose feathers were a staple of the millenary trade in the late nineteenth century. These men needed good quality decoys to do their deadly work and were responsible for the creation of many thousands of lures. Sport gunning also burgeoned after the Civil War. Wealthy city businessmen rode the rails to private clubs and hunting resorts all over the United States and Canada. They supported the work of many accomplished decoy carvers, and often commissioned birds of particular refinement and quality.

Many duck, plume and shorebird species declined drastically in number under the intense hunting pressure. Conservationists sounded the alarm as formerly immense migratory flights dwindled in some cases to handfuls of birds, and public attitudes toward the ongoing slaughter grew less tolerant as the century drew to a close. Spring shooting was outlawed in New York in 1895 to protect breeding shorebirds. Hunting seasons continued to be shortened in the early twentieth century, and Federal laws outlawing interstate sale of wildfowl were finally passed in 1918. Shorebird shooting was completely banned by the Federal Government in 1928.

Perhaps not coincidentally, 1918 also marked the beginning of the first important decoy collection. The collector was the aforementioned Joel Barber, a New York architect who found himself intrigued by an old merganser decoy he had found in a boathouse near his on Long Island. He brought it home and put it on his mantel and the more he looked at it the more he saw. As an artist, he was first drawn to the bird's sculptural qualities, but he soon wanted to know its history. He sought out local carvers and gunners wherever he traveled, listened to their tales, gathered decoys and pieced together their history. "Of all the birds susceptible to decoys," he wrote, "I am, perhaps, the most susceptible bird of all." Barber became a tireless promoter of the decoy as an important American art form. He loaned decoys from his collection to seminal folk-art exhibitions at the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1930s and wrote Wild Fowl Decoys, the first book on the subject, which was published in 1934 and remained the sole reference available to collectors until the 1960s.

Demand for decoys waned as restrictions on hunting grew, and professional carvers such as Cape Cod's Elmer Crowell and Maryland's Ward Brothers survived by diversifying their output and creating non-functional decorative and miniature carvings that appealed to a broader audience. With the market gunners gone, decoys were now being carved by and for sportsmen and the emphasis began to turn from function to style and form. In 1923, Joel Barber helped to organize the first decoy carving contest ever held. Over one hundred carvers entered the contest. The grand prize was awarded to Shang Wheeler from Stratford, Connecticut, whose sophisticated work, made specifically for exhibition and not for use, astonished other carvers. Wheeler and Barber mounted several joint shows at Abercrombie and Fitch in the '30s, and Wheeler continued to dominate the increasingly large and competitive annual New York carving competition until his death in 1947. Competition inevitably led carvers away from the simple demands of the marsh as they tried to outdo each other and appeal to the judges.

The vast technological changes of the 20th century also took their toll on the wooden decoy tradition. By the end of World War II, effective mass-produced decoys made of inexpensive and durable synthetics had taken over a growing share of the market for gunning decoys. Within a few years, decoys molded from plastic and rubber became the norm, driving the last practitioners of the wooden lure from the business. By the time of Joel Barber's death in 1952, the age of the wooden gunning bird was over.

As the time of their creation and use faded farther and farther into history, interest in collecting old gunning decoys began to grow and come into its own. Barber's book was republished shortly after his death and discovered by isolated collectors all over the country and his collection was placed on view at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. A small but growing group of early collectors found each other in the early 1960s and interest and knowledge have grown steadily ever since.

As collectors from Joel Barber's time to the present have realized, decoys are far more than the simple tools they first appear to be. They resonate with the history of North American wildfowl and the men who pursued this continent's birds. They tell a rich and uniquely American story that combines wonder and exploitation, wide-open possibility and lost opportunity. The best decoys are also enduring works of art, which can be appreciated on many different levels. They combine superb abstract sculptural form and appealing painted surfaces with the ability to evoke the living birds that inspired their creation. In their ability to capture living spirit in carved and painted wood, the masters of the American decoy must be considered among our finest and most expressive folk artists. Like all great art, their work is ultimately mysterious, and it demands and rewards our closest attention.

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