Modern decoys resemble live birds.

Modern decoys resemble live birds.


By Justin Sieverding

In 1918, Joel Barber began a new era of waterfowl decoys. Barber spent much of his life collecting and showcasing various decoys and even wrote a popular book on the subject 1934 titled, Wild Fowl Decoys. From here on the keystone component of waterfowl hunting becomes the decoy. It is also an authentic piece of Americana. So how did decoys come to be? Their history may go further back than you would expect!

Believe it or not Native Americans first put waterfowl decoys to use over 2000 years ago, possibly the Paiute Tribe of the Southwest. Evidence of these decoys was found in 1924 at the Lovelock Cave in Nevada. Here, archeologists found a cache of 11 waterfowl decoys that resembled the canvasback duck. The decoys cleverly crafted out of Tule reed are thought to have been used on the now dry Lake Humboldt. The practice of using decoys spread throughout tribes and caught the eye of early settlers in the 17th century.

With an abundance of waterfowl available throughout the “New World”, settlers began relying on decoys to improve their chances of luring in waterfowl. These decoys vary in style but were primarily carved out of wood and painted to mock the local waterfowl. Towards the 1800s, waterfowl became a staple food source for growing populations. “Market gunners” began to make their way to the scene by hunting vast amounts of waterfowl and commercially selling them to the public. These market gunners helped popularize the use of decoys and used huge punt guns to take out up to 100 waterfowl at once. Since this was a profitable market, decoys evolved into more efficient and realistic designs to help improve hunting.

After noticing the wide use of waterfowl decoys, companies like Mason Factory and Peterson Dodge began producing an abundance of decoys at the end of the 19th century. These companies used cedar wood and vibrant lead-based paint to produce top of the line decoys.

With no formal regulations protecting the waterfowl, migratory patterns and populations became a point of concern. This led to the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. It brought an end to the “market gunner” era and established bag limits and hunting seasons to help protect the dwindling waterfowl populations. With so many decoys on the market, hunters and the general public began looking at the decoys not only as a piece of hunting equipment but also as piece of art. With the help of Joel Barber and various other collectors, we now view decoys as a brilliant piece of Americana. These decoys can be so collectable, that in one auction a single decoy brought 1.13 million dollars!

While decoys can be highly collectible, they still meet their initial intention of attracting overhead waterfowl. For the past 2000 years and counting, the waterfowl decoy has transformed tremendously.  But it has always had the goal of improving a hunter’s chances. Now with 21st century technology, decoys are made of canvas, plastic, and paint to deliver supreme realism and performance.

DOA Decoys (www.doadecoys.com) hand-crafts high-quality waterfowl decoys in Algona, IA. After spending months reviewing the art portfolios of some of the most renowned waterfowl carvers in North America, they stumbled upon not one but two world class, world champion carvers who would combine their unrivaled mastery of wildfowl carving to create the perfect line of gunning decoys.

NOTE:  Justin Sieverding has spent most of his life hunting waterfowl in South Dakota and throughout North America.  He has a true passion and vast experience in everything related to waterfowl hunting including decoy spreads, bird patterns, scouting and calling.



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