The Lure of Duck Decoys

The story of duck decoys starts with our stomachs. What has become a celebrated art form owes its existence to our appetite for duck, first as a matter of survival, then as industry, and finally for sport. The selection of decoys in our October Gallery Auction offers examples of decoys from every stage of this story.

Like so many things, we learned to make decoys from the Native Americans. The Europeans who colonized this country were accustomed to being fed from farms, and so when they arrived in the New World they had to learn how to hunt for survival. The Native Americans made decoys out of bulrushes and mud to lure live birds. The colonists borrowed this technique and soon began carving decoys in wood.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, when things had settled down from the rugged early days of colonization, duck was de rigeur on the menus of upscale restaurants. To meet the demand, market hunters in the southeast began making wooden duck decoys by the flock. They deployed tens of decoys into the water at once to attract large numbers of birds, which where then shipped north to feed discerning diners. The decoys used by these hunters were purely utilitarian and rustic in design. But then duck hunting started to catch on as a sport for aristocrats wanting to convene with, and conquer, nature. But the plain decoys used by the market hunters would never do for this fashionable crowd, and so a market developed for ever more detailed, life-like and artistic decoys, made by individual artisans. The art form evolved from there - contemporary decoys are often not even used for hunting, but are carved and painted with incredible detail.

fullsizeoutput_d8 A Group of Six Bluebill Working Decoys

When Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, making it illegal for market hunters to hunt wild ducks in large numbers, the demand for decoys dropped steeply. The rudimentary decoys used by these hunters stopped being produced completely. Which, of course, now means that those simple decoys are highly collectible. Similar regulations banning the hunting of shore birds also made decoys for those birds scarce, and therefore sought after by modern collectors. At the same time, the single decoys made by skilled artisans with a high degree of artistry flourished, and the craft of decoy-making has continued to develop. The October Gallery Auction features a number of decoys made by mid-century carvers whose names add considerable value to their decoys, such as R. Madison Mitchell and Lum Fletcher.

View the full selection of duck decoys in the October Gallery Auction

Content produced by the Leland Little editorial team