Canvasback decoy Courtesy of Steve Surratt, Meredosia, Illinois
Duck Decoys: Carved Wooden Birds for Sport and Decoration
Decoys have been used by duck hunters for hundreds of years. Both professional
and amateur hunters used artificial decoys. Decoys are based upon the premise
that they are real enough to fool the prey into approaching. There is a balance
of requirements in the design of decoys. They need to be realistic models of
the hunter's prey, sturdy, lightweight, portable, compact, and inexpensive. A
single hunter may haul and set out from one- to seven-dozen ducks upon the
water, depending on the size of the marsh or lake on which he is hunting.
Working and decorative decoys were handmade during the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century. Working decoys were of two sorts. The main stays were
the decoy of the actual prey--mallards, pintails, canvasbacks, and other ducks
that were set out in pairs and groups.
The confidence decoy, carved in the form of herons, coots, geese,
doves, crows, and other birds, were made for the purpose of giving the flying
ducks confidence to land around the mainstay duck decoys. From the sky, the
ducks would have the confidence to approach when they saw several kinds of
birds swimming, wading, and feeding.
Decoy Construction Construction methods ranged from embalming ducks to attaching the skin of
a duck to a wooden form to carving wooden ducks. While some hunter-craftsmen carved their own, several companies
mass-produced wooden, cork, canvas, and inflatable models. There were even
attempts at mechanical and motorized decoys.
The simplest type of decoy was the silhouette decoy,
which were profiles of birds cut out of metal or wood, painted, and mounted on
sticks that anchored the decoy in the muddy bottom of the marsh. Another
primitive type of decoy was made by sticking the head of a dead duck on a stick
embedded through a mound of clay (the body). Decoy makers also tried stretching
over blocks of wood, mounting embalmed birds on a wooden
base, and forming birdlike shapes from cork-filled cotton bags.
The decoys we most commonly think of today are the hand-carved wooden birds weighted with lead strips
on the underside. Decoys could also be anchored on a tether to a lead weight,
either homemade or commercially produced. They came in circular, oblong, and button shapes.
Carvers used commercial paper patterns, patterns from other carvers, and developed their own from which to carve the decoy body parts. After carving and assembly, the carver, or often his wife, painted the species markings on the decoys.