Just ducky

I’ll let you all in on a little secret, so long as you promise not to take too great an advantage from it:

Ducks are the way to my heart.

Stand with me beside the bay on a freezing winter day, face streaked with tears from the biting wind, ducks bobbing in the distance and you’ll have found a friend for life.

If it’s June and there are no ducks to be had in NJ, find an excuse to be in ND and coast with me along deserted roads, bordered by great puddles filled with all manner of breeding ducks and I’ll think you the best birding-buddy a person could find.

And if it’s late September, when only the earliest of Northern Pintails can be found on some secret shallow marsh, go with me to the decoy show and let me anticipate the arrival of my most favorite class of birds.

Humor me as I agonize over which decoy I’ll bring home.

Try not to be too impatient with me as my questions elicit yet another story about how an ex-insurance broker came to carve shorebirds and paint lighthouses in his retirement. Or how another came to copy the great carvers who made their living from decoys in the days of market-gunning.

Don’t be embarrassed when I (too loudly) compare the antique animal traps at the taxidermist’s “display” to barbarian torture devices. Be proud, in fact, that I don’t back down from his smart-ass response to overhearing my comment.

This is a decoy and gunning show, remember.

And I’m a duck-watching, tree-hugging, dirt-loving fool.

For all that pains me about it, there is almost nothing that I don’t love about the heritage this show represents. Historically an impoverished area of the state, the baymen who made their living there did so in cycles, commercial fishermen in season and boat builders or electricians or decoy carvers in winter. Cranberry and blueberry harvesters or chicken farmers on the side.

Collectible decoys are an artifact of tools that have outlived their usefulness. The draw for me is the workmanship; the finest of floating sculpture that was designed to be tossed in salt water and into the line of fire. Gone, mostly, are the days when decoys were used to lure ducks and shorebirds to the hunter’s gun and then on to restaurants or the millinery trade.

The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act put an end to the commercial hunting of wild birds and so we’re left with a piece of history. A piece of that heritage remains in the decoy, more sophisticated now than the early carvings meant just to evoke the likeness of a bird and thereby bring the real thing into the sights of a hunter’s gun.

Of course it’s those primitive-style decoys that I prefer. I think it must be partly because they remind me of the way I experience ducks as a birder; old style decoys are all about field marks: cheek patches and tail shape and bill color. There’s no time to see the fine-feather detail on the flanks of a Bufflehead as they bob like little rubber ducks in the frozen bay, anyway. Too much detail distracts my eye, makes me keenly aware that what I’m seeing is, after all, a decoy.

The Ocean County Decoy and Gunning Show continues tomorrow in Tuckerton.

13 thoughts on “Just ducky”

  1. They are beautiful, aren’t they? One almost forgets why they were originally used. It’s good to know that there are still people who want to carve them.

  2. Well said, you duck-watching, tree-hugging, dirt-loving fool you.

    I also love the more primitive decoys since they were really the working models. Hunters didn’t have time to detail every feather, and it wasn’t necessary for their use.

  3. With your keen eye for the important features of a real, working decoy, why not try your hand at carving a few of your own? You could even take them out in your new boat to see how they work. I seem to recall some old Dover books about bird carving.

  4. My brother-in-law collects decoys but he goes for the more polished craftsman type.-It’s nice to have a tradition of going to an event like that.-I used to look forward to going to the fishing show every year but at some point it just became too commercial.-I still go once in a while though.

  5. Jayne: I think so, yeah.

    NCMountainWoman: I don’t that it’s true, but it seems like hunters use only plastic decoy anymore, though that may be a product of the few species that they can hunt.

    I’m not even certain of that, honestly. Anyone know about here in NJ? I know snow geese and canadas are big and black ducks, I guess. What else?

    Mojoman: Are you pulling my leg?

    Trust me with a sharp object?

    (You should see me chopping vegetables!)

    The seaport actually has carving classes that I would love to see the DH try his hand at. He’s good at that sort of thing.

    Not me tho… there’s some major disconnect between my hand and my brain when it comes to making stuff that’s 3-dimensional.

    Larry: Yeah… this is something I look forward to every year. A fun day with music and food and dogs and stuff.

    What’s a fishing show like?

    John: Yeah… wish I had bought it.

    Mary: So… share ’em someday, Mary!

  6. I’ll be your duck-friend, Laura. Until I took a bird ID course with our local Audubon chapter, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of ducks. The class was held in late winter, so standing around with freezing feet and a biting wind in your face was a requirement, but I picked up a lot of life birds, and learned that good duck viewing requires a spotting scope.

    Do you have a favorite duck? Buffleheads are one of mine.

    I like the primitive wooden decoys, too.


  7. KatDoc: I think I love ducks so much because they’re big and don’t move so fast and are easy to see here.


    (There’s other reasons, too, but nevermind.)

    A scope is a luxury with ducks, yes. Necessary tho for sea ducks like eiders and oldsquaw.

    I think oldsquaw are probably my favorites… I love the look of them, plus I love their call and that they are so vocal late in the winter, unlike the other ducks.

    Hoodies and buffleheads are favorites too. Oh and wood ducks! And I really like redheads.

    (You get the idea!)

    I had the most awful binocs the first winter I learned ducks…. it was quite a surprise to me how beautiful they were the following winter with good optics.

    Susan: lol! I would love a little ducky bracelet.

  8. Pardon my tardiness. I love your decoy-love posts! I love wood ducks and American widgeons. And mallards. And baby ducks of any sort. And cinnamon teals. And…

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