The Fascinating History of Hunting Decoys, an American Folk Art Form

Decoys originate from human efforts to attract waterfowl. Whether hunting with nets, traps or firearms, hunters have come to place as much importance on decoys as on boats, blinds and shotguns. As weaponry improved and populations grew in the later part of the 19th century, more people hunted waterfowl for food and entertainment, and the demand for decoys increased. Decoy art involved making fabrications look realistic from a distance – the more realistic the decoys, the more successful the hunt.

Waterfowl luring is now a valuable folk art form. Often highly sought after as collectibles, many are very valuable. From old work lures to modernized, stylized and intricately sculpted ones, they reflect the impact of technology, environment, society and economy on an American way of life.

(Courtesy of John V. Quarstein)

The Magic of Migration

As the crisp autumn winds crash over the Chesapeake, we once again hear the glorious music of migrating Canada geese drifting through the air. Look to the sky or above the cut cornfields, and you can see their flickering lines passing in the distance. One wonders what forces these birds to travel thousands of miles each year from their northern breeding grounds to winter destinations along the Atlantic coast, and back again. How do they find their way? How do they know when to leave and when to return? The answers to these questions lie in the mystery of migration.

The north and south movement of migratory waterfowl is likely triggered by weather conditions, including temperature and barometric pressure. Birds travel certain routes to particular locations based on food and water sources, and waterfowl flocks return to the same wintering areas each year due to the footprint.

The Atlantic Flyway welcomes birds from the eastern Arctic, coastal Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, Hudson’s Bay, Yukon, and the prairies of Canada and the United States. -United. Millions of ducks, swans and geese move along the coast and winter in the Chesapeake and North Carolina straits.

The Chesapeake Bay region is a major magnet for migratory waterfowl. These protected waters provide food and safe haven. Aquatic weeds fill the waterways and harvested fields are sprinkled with corn. The sheer number of birds that flock to the area has driven the demand for decoys for centuries.

Epoch Times Photo
Humans have hunted waterfowl for food and sport for thousands of years. (RubberBall Productions/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Waterfowl in America

The word decoy is derived from the Dutch words for the (de), the cage (kooi) and the duck or fowl (eend). The Dutch brought to New Amsterdam – present-day New York – an ancient method of using cages and tame ducks to attract and trap wild birds. Tamed birds were called caged ducks, or “de kooi eend”. In the mid-19th century, the word decoy became common in America as “the image of a bird used to attract a shot”.

While the earliest known decoys were used by pre-Columbian North Americans, a combination of factors increased the demand for waterfowl during post-Civil War America. Migratory birds, including web-backed ducks and tundra swans, were abundant, but access to and distribution of this seemingly endless food source was problematic. Rapid population growth motivated Americans to find ways to harvest the crop, and expanding railroads provided routes for refrigerated cars to transport the delicious waterfowl meat to the eager markets of otherwise disconnected major cities. rivers, bays and marshes.

At the same time, improvements in firearms increased the effectiveness of hunters. From the paper shotgun shell to lever-action, pump-action, and eventually automatic rifles, the rate of fire increased and the weapons became so effective that waterfowl were quickly endangered, forcing the adoption of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Previously, natural abundance coupled with technological innovation made it possible to harvest thousands of ducks each year. On the flat tides of the Susquehanna River, sink blinds were preferred—usually by market hunters—and required 300 to 700 lures per layout. An estimated 75 sinks were in use in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With 50 to 100 decoys per sneakbox boat and countless blind rigs, approximately 20,000 or more decoys were needed each year to support hunting activities.

Epoch Times Photo
A shorebird decoy stands on driftwood. Made around 1900, it has thumbtacks for the eyes and a nail for the beak. It is part of the author’s personal collection. (Courtesy of John V. Quarstein)

The rapid expansion of market and sport hunting after the Civil War era prompted many guides to start making decoys, and the craft became a major trade. Influenced by regional differences in water, weather, paint and stylistic traditions, lure designs have been passed down from generation to generation. Each manufacturer had an opinion on the appearance of various waterfowl.

Lure-making practices were well established by the mid-19th century. Decoys were cut by hand using simple woodworking tools such as axes, logs, rasps and various types of knives. With the rise in popularity of waterfowl hunting in the 20th century, the need for decoys grew and the influence of industrialization set in just as the market expanded beyond the ability of manufacturers traditional.

Enterprising businessmen, hunters, and carpenters strove to promote and mass-produce decoys. Traditional carvers have turned to power tools to increase output. While some operations employed only a few workers and continued to use traditional carving methods, other manufacturers used assembly line processes. The common ground for these early producers was to advertise their products nationwide and ship beautiful, high quality lures.

A legacy carved in wood

Makers had often struggled to make decent lures from materials other than wood. The post-World War I era saw the first shift from wooden working lures to mass-produced lures from other materials. This transition changed the lure industry. After World War II, cork, canvas, papier-mâché and plastic decoys appeared. Many of these new styles were patented, and each promised to fetch the most ducks. As the cost of wooden birds increased, other types of decoys became more popular and dominated shooting rigs. Woodcarvers could not economically compete with plastic birds, and their work shifted from making hunting tools to creating works of art.

People had already recognized the folk art qualities of decoys. Traditional makers have strived for realism, sculpting lures with raised wings or turned heads, for example. Others made miniatures as samples of their work. These “fancy ducks”, as Lem Ward called the first decorative items, began to fetch high prices. Over time carvers expanded their techniques from using wood burning tools to detail feathers, to branching out into new technologies like dental tools to make decoys so realistic any duck would be surprised at discover the opposite.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of John V. Quarstein)

The art of luring is constantly evolving. Today’s lures are mixtures of traditional working lures and fine detail reflections. Many decoys were not intended to be hunting tools, but many still are. Craftsmanship continues as a connection between man and nature, form and function.

Waterfowl decoys had been around for thousands of years before collectors came to appreciate the decoy as a historical art form – one of the oldest forms of American folk art – with potential for aesthetic value. exceeding its functional value. While many decoys served as mere tools of the bayman’s trade, others became expressions of the birds themselves. In the end, the material and the style are not as important as the process and the overall effect. When a decoy truly captures a bird in body and mind, we call it art.

The Vagabond
I’m just an old decoy has-been
No ribbon I won.
My sides and my head are full of shots
Of many blazing weapons.
My home has been near the river,
Just drifting with the tide.
I had no roof to shelter me,
No place where I could stay.
I rocked in the wild fury of winter,
I burned in the heat of the sun,
I drifted and drifted and drifted,
Because the tides never stop flowing.
I was picked up by a fool collector
Who put me here on a shelf.
But my place is on the river,
Where I can drift on my own.
I want to go back to the shore
Where flying clouds hang thick and low,
And touch the raindrops
And the velvety touch of snow.
—Lem Ward, Chrisfield, Maryland

This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.