Tools of Deception: A History
of American Bird Decoys
"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
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 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.