Life-like decoy ducks once lured unsuspecting birds within range of hunters' guns but they are now more likely to be seen on collectors' shelves because beautifully carved examples are much sought after.
The decoy duck was probably devised by North American Indians. In 1924, 11 canvasback duck decoys, all more than 1000 years old, were discovered in a Nevada cave. Forerunners of the modern decoy, each was fashioned from rushes and feathers and had an anchor tether.
American colonists, with better tools, gradually improved on the Indian decoys, devising more durable, lightweight wooden duck decoys.
These would be placed on the water in naturalistic groups, downwind of the hunter's boat or hide (all birds land into the wind) and wild birds, thinking the water was safe, would be lured in to land among the decoys.
Each decoy had an anchor attached by a line, so it would bob on the water but would not be blown away or carried off on the tide.
Hunters also used decoys of swans and geese to lure these birds and would often include a decoy of a particularly wary bird, such as a heron, to give the wild birds confidence.
Wading birds were lured to the guns with shorebird decoys mounted on sticks and thrust into the muddy margins. 'Stick-ups' - painted silhouettes of wildfowl made of wood or sheet metal - could be pegged into marshy ground or harvested cornfields.
In the 19th century - the heyday of American wildfowling - large manufacturers were producing hand-finished wooden decoys at $12 a dozen or less.
Local craftsmen were also making their own, using whatever wood and tools were to hand to fashion them. The body of the bird was sometimes hollowed out to make it more buoyant. This also made it lighter to carry and less likely to split; a rattling bean or a woodchip was sealed within the bird to prove it was hollow.
The decoy was primed and was often painted with ordinary household gloss paint thinned with petrol, or it was allowed to dry outside in damp conditions to eradicate shine and make it look realistic. Finally, it was signed or branded with the owner's name.
Decoys were regarded purely as functional objects used by hunters, until the publication, in 1934, of Joel Barber's Wild Fowl Decoys. Once he had pointed out their aesthetic qualities and coined the term 'floating sculpture', people began to view them with fresh eyes and the era of the decorative decoy had begun.
Nowadays, superbly life-like decoys by 19th century carvers and early 20th-century craftsmen have soared in price. Simple working decoys from the 19th century are regarded as valuable folk art.
DECOY DUCK COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The price of decoy birds does not depend on good condition; indeed the decoy collector will expect to pay a higher price for an example that has clearly seen some practical use.
It is not unusual for working decoys to have been peppered with shot.
Dealers' lists and auction catalogues append the letters 'OP' to the descriptions of some decoys, indicating that the original paintwork still adheres. This enhances its value and repainting the bird is not recommended.
North America was, and still is, the source of most decoys, and it is there that the collecting bug first bit. Decoys were, however, shipped to Europe and elsewhere in large numbers in the 19th century and the early 20th century, so it is still possible to find American-made birds in Britain.
British-made decoys dating back to Georgian times have very occasionally appeared on the market. Collecting early
decoys can be expensive in a rapidly rising market which is sufficiently lucrative to attract a significant number of forgeries.
Rising prices have led some people to collect the more affordable anchor weights which once tethered working decoys.
Some collectors concentrate on modern decoys: 20th-century craftsmen such as Lem
and Steve Ward of Crisfield, Chesapeake ('Wildfowl Counterfeiters in Wood') have continued the tradition, making decorative decoys in traditional or naturalistic styles for a burgeoning collectors' market.