Bird decoys are highly-realistic man-made models representing ducks or other waterfowl, often used by hunters to attract real birds.
These models were traditionally carved from wood and painted in great detail, and are considered a form of North American folk art.
The tradition of creating bird decoys began in the United States with the Native American Indians, who would use materials such as straw, mud, stuffed skins and eventually wood to build their models.
This technique was adopted by colonial settlers and the tradition continued, with ever-more elaborate techniques used to create lifelike birds.
The use of decoys was widespread in the U.S from the mid 18th century to the early 20th century due to the boom in commercial hunting.
The late 1800s saw a number of factories mass-producing wooden decoys for this commercial market, as many hunters used hundreds of decoys during single trips.
But in 1915 the North American Migratory Bird Act made it illegal to sell migratory birds, and the level of commercial hunting fell drastically.
The early 20th century saw the rise of sport hunting and the quality of decoys increased as many wealthy hunters sought better-looking models. They used far fewer decoys than commercial hunters and could afford to spend more on their decoys.
The hobby of decoy collecting was made popular by Joel Barber, a New York architect who began to collect decoys in 1918 and went on to promote them as examples of American folk art.
He loaned his important collection to museums and exhibitions during the 1920s and 30s, and published the book ‘Wild Fowl Decoys’ in 1934.
In 1924 he organized the first national decoy carving competition, and the emphasis for artists began to change from function to form.
Although new manufacturing processes and materials led to the mass production of plastic and rubber decoys during the 1950s, carving competitions remain to this day and a small number of artists continue to produce hand-carved birds for the high-end market.
Antique and vintage bird decoys are highly collectible, with some examples selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Decoy collectors often choose to focus their collection on a specific area – this can include birds of a certain species or location, those made by a specific carver or produced in a particular period.
There are a wide variety of different types of decoy, from mass-produced commercial hunting decoys to unique hand-carved antique decoys.
The value of a decoy bird depends on a number of factors including its rarity, condition, provenance, style, the carver that produced it and the type of bird it depicts.
Most valuable examples
The most valuable decoys are those by recognised carvers of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Elmer Cromwell, Lothrop Holmes, the Ward Brothers and William Bowman.
Collectors look for models which were designed for practical use but rarely or never used. Signed decoys with good provenance, such as those from important collections, are amongst the most sought-after.
The rarest decoys are those made to depict birds which were rarely hunted, or those carved in unusual poses. Many carvers produced models in batches of a specific species, but small variations in their pose can drastically alter their market value.
Although the most valuable decoys are those hand-made on an individual basis, some factory made models from the late 19th and early 20th century are highly collectable. The most popular factory models are those made by the Mason Decoy Company, the Victor Decoy Company, the Dodge Decoy Company, Stevens Decoy Company, Peterson Decoy Company, and Reynolds Decoy Company.
The world’s most expensive bird decoy
The most expensive bird decoy ever sold at auction is a rare red-breasted Merganser Hen carved by Lothrop Holmes (1821 – 1899) in the mid to late 19th century.
It was sold at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2007 for a World Record price of $856,000.