Collecting Decoys Not Just for the Birds
Lest you think that collecting duck decoys is, well, quackery, think again. Despite being off the radar for most urban dwellers, this is a surprisingly dynamic area of collecting. There are dozens of books and magazines dedicated to the subject, well established auction houses that deal almost exclusively in the category, and singular examples that sell for enormous sums. The craftsmanship of decoy making is also one of the only art forms to have originated solely in North America. With that, let's take a closer look.
First of all, not all decoys are ducks. There are more than 40 species of waterfowl in the USA, including swans, geese, and ducks. Just within the latter category are sea ducks, divers ducks, dabbling ducks and whistling ducks. Experienced hunters and birdwatchers know them all, and so do (or did) makers of decoys. In fact, hand-crafted decoys of startling realism have been made of every one.
In general, decoy collectors come by their passion in one of three ways. Some are contemporary hunters who still utilize decoys and have a utilitarian bent to their collections. Others are history buffs who like collecting the paraphernalia of early market hunters. And still others are folk art enthusiasts who know the original artisans and can often identify the maker by a decoy's particular characteristics.
Originally, decoys were developed as an aid to market hunters. Long before Perdue chickens, KFC, and other manifestations of modern day poultry, American consumers bought and ate wild birds brought to market by commercial hunters. In those days, birds of all types were hugely abundant and killed in staggering numbers. It is thought that the American passenger pigeon once numbered more than five billion individual birds, yet was hunted to extinction by 1914. All wildfowl was aggressively hunted to supply the growing American population, and waterfowl was no exception.
First introduced around 1840, decoys were deployed by hunters to attract like birds into close proximity. They were immediately successful and hundreds of thousands of decoys were made over the next century. Were it not for the 1918 federal legislation prohibiting the interstate sale of migratory birds, many waterfowl species might have followed the passenger pigeon to oblivion. However, commercial hunting pressure eased after WWI and decoy production declined. A move towards plastic decoys in the 1950s further reduced demand for hand-made birds.
Today the golden age of decoy production is considered to be that period prior to 1950. Apart from purely decorative decoys, almost all working decoys were carved from wood and carefully balanced to float as a natural bird would while resting in the water. Some are made in exquisite detail with pinfeathers carefully painted in and eyes made of glass or even semi-precious stones. Collectors tend to specialize in species, maker, or period, and a few special birds have sold in excess of one million dollars. Nonetheless, quality decoys can often be found in antique stores for little more than the price of a good chicken dinner, and it's a wonderful category to pursue. If you're looking for a new hobby with a connection to both history and nature, you can do a lot worse.