Chesapeake Bay Decoys

Upper Chesapeake Bay Decoys and Their Makers
Once they lured ducks, now decoys attract collectors
Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal

It was just at first light on the day after Thanksgiving when distant shots rang out across the Patuxent from several coves up the creek. The sound came from behind us as well, echoing across the woodland from a tributary south of here. Waterfowl season was in full swing; the migratory birds were running their annual gantlet of the hunt.

Across the creek, a small gaggle of geese huddled in deep water, wary of approaching the marsh edge to forage for food, where hunters in an unrecognized blind might end their lives.

Later when I was on the water myself, small nervous knots of buffleheads skittered away at my passing. A few oldsquaw were far out on the Bay as I sailed north, streaming away when I tacked in their direction. Meanwhile, four large wintering gannets soared southward on 6-foot wingspans, their black wing tips unmistakable even at a quarter mile distance.

Most casual birders don’t often see them because they prefer to fly and fish well offshore. Doug Forsell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there are more than 6,000 on the Chesapeake most winters, but the larger numbers are south, where the Bay is wider than a shore-bound observer can see.

It was very different weather, when I sailed in the heat of July 1972, down Tangier Sound. My wife, Nancy, and one of my oldest friends, F.E. “Pete” MacDonald, were aboard.

To our starboard, the marshes on Bloodsworth Island were on fire, the result of Navy aircraft bombing, a regular practice across this low marshy land in those days. We trailed overboard, hanging from the mizzen sheets to cool off. The tide was against us, coursing northward and directly opposing us. Crab pots, at the ends of their warps, were being pulled underwater by the current.

It was a hard slog into an increasing southwest wind before we could turn eastward into Wenona, a tiny settlement on the south end of Deal Island. This was a cramped anchorage for our old yawl. CEMBA. Its draft—less than 3 feet—allowed us to nose into some pretty tight places, but this was about the limit. There was just about 4 feet of depth beneath us in a channel so narrow that we had to put anchors bow and stern to keep from swinging across or onto the adjacent shoals where the next falling tide would strand us.

Out of the channel, the broad flats had hardly a foot or two of water. The wreck of an old skipjack, its decks canted and most of the hull sunk in the mud, lay beautifully lit in the near orange light of late afternoon sun. It was still graceful—but after years of decay, it was beyond any salvage—and the tides came and went amongst its rotting bones.

We passed the post office, one of those tiny buildings common in rural areas that serve to distribute the mail to the farthest tendrils of the system. Some stand alone; others are a small corner or general store. Inside this one, a partition separated the building. When we asked for stamps to mail a postcard, Dave the postmaster walked around and passed the stamps and took the change through the opening beneath a small window with grillwork of turned wooden bars he’d carved himself. It was painted red, white, and blue with a painted American eagle, if I recall correctly.

Old waterfowl decoys were perched along the wide copings which edged the little building’s walls. I noticed one of painted canvas, stuffed with ground cork and not far from the concept originally developed by Native American hunters thousands of years ago.

These were not “art” decoys; most had been shot over as working blocks among the marshy islands and sloughs which surrounded us. Many still had lead ballast weights attached to their bottoms and a leather thong or rusted metal eye in the “bow” from which an anchored tether held them nose to the wind when a spread of decoys was out on the water adjacent to a blind.

A particularly nice hooded merganser carved locally and fancifully hand painted caught MacDonald’s eye and Dave took $20 for it. The others were only $10.

I was too cheap to buy the whole remaining dozen or so. The price of one of these old working blocks today would have paid for the whole lot! I know this because many years later when his interests changed, MacDonald presented me with the merganser decoy and I had it appraised.

I’m not a hunter, but decoys are not a complete mystery to me. As a young man, I’d once found a hand-carved Barnegat Bay decoy while poking about the marshes. Over the years, another half dozen have come into my hands while beachcombing in the Chesapeake.

A good friend, the late Sally Schneider, was a prize-winning carver who exhibited and sold her birds at Eastern Shore shows for years as part of the circuit developing around the famous Ward Brothers of Salisbury, MD.

I wonder in retrospect if any of the post office decoys might have been Lem Ward’s. My Uncle Frank has a nice pencil drawing of a scaup or bluebill (Nyroca affinis) that Ward did in the 1960s while Frank watched. It has been conservatively appraised at $400.

I was blessed that my mentors include a scientist known as “Mr. Chesapeake Bay,” the late Dr. L. Eugene Cronin. Once, the subject of decoys came up, and this only after he’d shared his family’s roots fishing “shad floats” during the once phenomenal migratory fish runs at the beginning of the last century. Seasonal employments shifted in those days among several pursuits as one after another resource came and went through the Chesapeake’s annual panoply of abundance. Waterfowling was a trade for some, agriculture for others.

Waterfowling was based on the immense fall migrations and winter residence of what were once millions of ducks and geese passing through and congregating on the arms of the Atlantic Flyway, an aerial highway coursing up and down the Bay and beyond.

Much of the action was focused in the Upper Chesapeake, across the broad Susquehanna Flats where this greatest of the Bay’s rivers spreads out, unburdening itself of some of the sediments gathered upstream and creating miles of relatively shallow water where sunlight and clearer waters can foster immense meadows of underwater grasses.

In the 1870s, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper—written for an audience of sportsmen eager to harvest these birds—published an engraving of ducks feeding voraciously on the flats’ wild celery.

While sportsmen used decoys, others tamed live birds and made remarkable hauls. The toll taken by market hunters, who shot at night into flocks of sleeping ducks, sometimes with weapons little short of cannons, was astounding.

The birds were gutted and shipped in barrels to far-flung restaurant markets. This indiscriminate slaughter brought some species to the rim of extinction, prompting the federal government to outlaw baiting or shooting over tethered live decoys.

As technology advanced, recording devices with weather- hardened speakers were used, and in the 1950s, the feds outlawed broadcasting recordings to lure birds.

In the meantime, decoys were produced by generations of carvers, many of whom became famous, with their work highly sought after, long after their deaths.

Cronin, it turned out, had been a quiet collector of waterfowl decoys for years. “One of my cousins,” he said, “was Madison Mitchell.” My ears perked up because Mitchell’s work is legendary.

The wonderful Decoy Museum at Havre de Grace, where the Susquehanna River meets the flats, pays extensive tribute to him. Parts of his carving shop have been set up in a diorama. Forensic reconstruction experts were given a set of photos showing Mitchell at work and in a variety of poses so they could create a life-size wax sculpture.

The museum was the backdrop for a speech by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore marking the 25th anniversary of Earth Day in 1995.

The Havre de Grace area is also part of the National Park Service Gateways Network and a way station on the new Captain John Smith Water Trail, signed into law by President Bush in December.

The numbers of decoys produced by local carvers—each with his own style—as well as by commercial manufacturers must have rivaled the number of ducks they were designed to lure. Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s 1902 catalogue included common flyway species: “mallard, canvasback, red head, blue bill, teal, pin or sprig tails.” Made from “sound white cedar” and hand-painted, they weighed in at 35–40 pounds per dozen and were sold for $2 to $2.95 per dozen, the more costly decoys having glass eyes, not painted ones. Just imagine the hand labor finishing these birds.

To get a feel for the process, I visited New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay. Art Birdsall, (He pronounces it: bird-s’l.) a fourth generation carver who works in Bay Head. He explained how the manufacturing side of the business worked.

His shop is a step back into the 19th century. Once past the small lobby where some of his work is shelved, the floors are covered with piles of wood chips and sawdust. Everything inside is covered in sawdust, too, even the rusted frame of an old revolver hanging overhead on a nail. Sawdust is 2 feet deep in the corners behind little used machines and it struck me that a spark could kindle a conflagration. It hasn’t yet, but to lose this place would be a tragedy for coastal history.

Most of today’s white cedar decoy bodies are not solid wood like many of the 19th century birds were. Birdsall showed me the telltale gouge marks on my old merganser from its maker’s tools as well as a dent on the belly where a piece of heartwood broke out along the line of wood grain, all sanded and painted over in the final.

Most blocks—for such they were at the start—were built hollow from smaller stock, doweled together with wooden pegs, then glued to assure stability; a process developed over a century and a half. The weight-saving void inside is either carved or sawn out in the middle.

Now, Birdsall band-saws out the rectangular blanks following profile and “plan” (top) view pencil-traced onto the blocks using thin wooden patterns that hang on nails all over the place: geese, swans, oldsquaw, canvasback, scoters, blue bill.

Spanning the length of Birdsall’s shop is a 12-position, fixed bed router, essentially a pantograph where a single hand-carved body is replicated onto blanks mounted in front of each cutting tool.

The blocks move in unison while the router heads spin on belt drives and the tool mimics the movements of a guide which is run over the master carving. Millions of wood shavings fly all over the room, until “no parts that don’t look like a duck’s body remain.” These are just the bodies, roughed out and full of tool marks, and still a long ways from a final carving.

(At one time, Birdsall’s most popular bodies were once cast into aluminum replicas, but the guy who did it stopped.)

Heads are band-sawed separately, rough-routed on the machine like their bodies, then hand-carved to the appropriate finish. Properly, Birdsall says, the head is doweled to the body. It might be fixed, capable of turning or even removed for compact storage.

Even I can recognize many Bay species simply from their roughed-out heads. The expert, however, zeros in on the tiniest flaws that depart from the living bird. I watched my friend Sally Schneider, the year before her death in 2005, guide one of her carving students. “The eye’s not right,” she said, “It goes this way” and deftly wielding a pencil with the lightest touch, turned the bird’s head, and marked exactly, to the fractional millimeter, where the eye should balance on the other side.

The true skill—mechanical carving assists aside—is in the finishing, and over the years this could have been rough sanding and bold quick painting for quantity production for the market place, or exquisitely detailed teasing out of near-perfect feathers from the wood so that once painted by the hand of a true artist, the work is hard to distinguish in texture, form and pose of the living bird.

These latter works of sculpture can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and more. It would be unthinkable to shoot over such pieces, as one of my scaup (blue-bill) decoys was. Fifty years later, it still bears the scars of #6 bird shot raking across its painted back.

Birdsall uses leather thongs for tethers and lead “ballasting” weights that would fit a working decoy for sea duty on the hunt. Perhaps they are just window dressing, lending authenticity to display pieces.

Today’s plastic shooting decoy would seem a more prosaic thing, although they still draw in unwary waterfowl. With the advent of roto-molded plastics and expandable foams, a plausible shape can be machine produced with color highlights spray painted where necessary. I’ve saved a number of them that have drifted ashore over the decades. They can be produced quickly, so I am surprised to find that in full body floating versions they sell in groups of two or four at $60 to $110. There is even an eBay market for “vintage” plastic decoys, at prices not far below the new improved models!

Now that plastic decoys are considered vintage, yet another layer of modern technology has entered the picture. You guessed it: electronic and battery-powered decoys that flap their wings or paddle around. Their prices range from $100 to $200.

Supporters claim that the advantage is not as great as one would think. They say that ducks brought in closer to the hunters are more likely to be killed than become wounded stragglers for predators or victims of a slow death.

Waterfowl writer Worth Mathewson, who has hunted for 50 years, said, “It goes against everything I think a sportsman to be. [Mechanical decoys] are a shortcut into hunting. People [who] don’t want to take the time and effort to learn how to call, how to place their decoys, how to be a good duck hunter, can just use one of these stupid things.”

Pennsylvania was the first to ban these newfangled decoys. Washington state followed, and California has banned them during the first half of their hunting season. Will the rest of the Chesapeake states follow?

And what of artfully carved waterfowl replicas painted with excruciating accuracy? It is doubtful they will bob in a spread of hunting decoys on the Bay’s wintery chop and be spattered with bird shot.

Birdsall’s not yet an old man (I say this emphatically as I am slightly his senior!) but a spell of ill health led him to liquidate some of his treasures where he hopes they will be cared for. He still works, however, largely on commission.

And, some people come by to learn what they can from him about history and carving. A bachelor, he expects that he’s the last generation of Birdsalls who will be carving birds. Long may he continue, and long may the birds he honors visit our bays and rivers.

Dr. Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.

Once they lured ducks, now decoys attract collectors
Article from Bay Journal - Feb 2007

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