By Bruce MacPherson
Once in a while the weather in Vermont becomes so forbidding that birding outside is impossible. On these occasions one is forced to pass the time pursuing indoor birding. Curling up with your favorite birding book or the latest issue of Audubon Magazine are possibilities for birding indoors. Thumbing through the big Sibley’s or listening to Birdjam on your i-Pod to hone your birding skills are others. But here is an alternative you may not have thought of. Consider visiting a display of decoys or waterfowl carvings.
Waterfowl decoys represent a uniquely American form of folk art with distinctive regional characteristics. Although the use of decoys to lure ducks, geese, and shorebirds into shooting range dates back hundreds of years to ancient Native American cultures, the “golden age” of decoy manufacturing occurred after the Civil War, when expansion of the railroads opened new, urban markets for commercial hunters and new opportunities for “sports’” to indulge their passion for duck hunting. This era closed just after World War I with the implementation of the North American Migratory Bird Treaty that effectively banned the sale of wild ducks and geese and outlawed the hunting of shorebirds. The rafts of decoys used by commercial hunters became redundant artifacts and disappeared into attics, cellars, and wood stoves.
Seizing this opportunity, Joel Barber, an architect from Connecticut, became the first collector to recognize the artistic merit of hand-carved decoys. In his seminal book, Wild Fowl Decoys, Barber aptly referred to these carvings as “floating sculpture”. Soon Barber and a few other energetic collectors inspired by him were scouring the Atlantic coast, buying decoys and other hunting paraphernalia for pennies from their original owners. Barber and his friends William Mackey and George Ross Starr amassed huge decoy collections, which today would be worth several million dollars. At the same time Barber, Mackey, and Starr collected stories from the original decoy makers and their friends, many of whom were bay men or boat builders, who described a life spent on the water that has long since passed into memory. Mackey summarized his collecting experiences in an influential book, American Bird Decoys. Likewise, George Starr wrote a colorful and beautifully illustrated book, Decoys of the Atlantic Flyway. All three of these books remain available today through on-line booksellers such as Amazon.com.
After Joel Barber’s death in 1948, his collection was acquired by the Shelburne Museum. Today these carvings form the core of the Shelburne Museum’s magnificent decoy collection, which resides in the Dorset House. In contrast, the Mackey and Starr collections were sold at auction by the Richard A. Bourne Co. of Hyannis, MA. in 1970-1971 and 1986 respectively These public auctions set a new standard for decoy prices and provided a robust market for buying and selling these works of folk art. Even today decoy auctions continue to be an important source for acquiring and learning about these artifacts (for example, see the Guyette and Schmidt Auction Company website at http://www.guyetteandschmidt.com).
Closer to home, how can the indoor birder indulge his or her hobby when the weather precludes birding outdoors? In season, visiting the Shelburne Museum’s Dorset House is one possibility, of course. The museum owns arguably the finest collection of antique decoys on public display on the planet. Though they are not antique decoys, the Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington boasts a fine collection of wooden birds hand-carved by the irrepressible Bob Spear. As an additional benefit, the BOVM includes a large picture window looking out on feeders that attract many local birds and other wild life. The BOVM website can be accessed at http://www.birdsofvermont.org.
Farther afield, if you happen to be traveling on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there is an outstanding collection of carved birds at the Ward Museum in Salisbury, Maryland (http://www.wardmuseum.org). Lem and Steve Ward were brothers from Crisfield, Maryland who became carvers in the 1920’s and whose working and decorative decoys command premier prices in today’s market. Every year the Ward Museum sponsors a bird carving competition dedicated to the memory of Lem and Steve that attracts the world’s finest bird sculptors. If you visit the museum you may want to bring a field guide along. A huge variety of antique and decorative bird carvings are on display in a bucolic setting.
Waterfowl decoys occupy a unique chapter in American folk art history coincident with the country's emerging interest in conservation. Visit a few of the websites identified in this article to stoke your interest, then visit one or more of the museums in your pursuit of the sport of indoor birding.
Photo by Pam MacPherson of a Steven's "humpback style" Goldeneye c.1890.