More than just decorative accents on a mantel or bookshelf, antique wooden duck and goose decoys have long lured collectors. Less well-known – and just as collectible – are carved shorebirds, which are attractive folk art pieces and valued collectors’ items. Decoy collecting as a whole has become so popular during the last decade that masterpiece shorebird decoys have sold for more than $800,000.
“Many men – and women – like shorebirds,” says Russ Goldberger of RJG Antiques in Rye, NH, one of the country’s top dealers of antique decoys and American folk art. “Waterfowl and bird watching are popular and shorebird decoys are among the last areas to be discovered in American folk art. They’re also decorative and easy to display.”
What are Shorebirds?
Shorebirds, also known as beach birds, range in size from tiny “peeps” (about the size of a sparrow) to curlews (larger than some ducks). Distinguished by their skinny legs and thin bills, they live on tidal beaches and frequent migratory routes along the East and West Coasts of the United States, and also the Midwest.
Why Collect Shorebird Decoys?
Hunting of shorebirds was banned nearly 100 years ago and, subsequently, decoys vanished. Now, they’re prized by collectors. Goldberger offers these tips on collecting antique shorebird decoys and what to look for:
Shorebird decoys are valuable because they’re an important part of American waterfowl hunting and decoy history.
Shorebird decoys are rare. Many have been damaged or lost due to age and delicacy.
Highly collectible shorebird decoys were made by craftsmen or hunters and come in a wide variety of species, plumages, regions, and makers, available in many price ranges.
Collect authentic shorebird decoys that are 100+ years old. Make sure the dealer or auction house guarantees the age of your choices.
Buy shorebird decoys in original condition. Shorebirds with original paint and original bills are more valuable. Bills are the most delicate part of a shorebird decoy and easily damaged. A replaced bill should be reflected in the decoy’s reduced price.
Buy what you like regardless of who made it. Many fine shorebird decoys were crafted by unknown makers who created a small group of decoys for their own use.
Consider pieces by contemporary carvers. These are highly collectible, but buy them as modern recreations, not antiques. The price should reflect the decoy’s age.
Shorebirds are beautiful and visually arresting when displayed.
History of Shorebird Decoys
Most shorebird species in New England and the Southeast were hunted for sport and food during the 19th and early 20th centuries. American hunters used decoys as part of their practice, making shorebird decoys from painted wood, but also papier-mâché, tin, and leather (decoy factories, such as the Mason Decoy Factory in Detroit, MI, also marketed numerous decoys to hunters). American shorebird decoys rarely have legs; they were placed on sticks which were pressed into beach sand. The decoys were very effective: shorebirds were easy targets and large flocks could be shot at once.
Large-scale hunting decimated shorebird populations to such a degree that, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, banning the hunting of most shorebird species in the U.S. Once hunting was banned, shorebird decoys became unnecessary so many were burned, thrown away or relegated to barns or hunting shacks. Few survived, which makes them so valuable to collectors today.
“Shorebird decoys represent one of the last areas to be discovered in American folk art,” says Goldberger. “They not only remind people of hunting – still a popular sport among thousands of Americans – and the outdoors, but the joys of coastal life. They’re very much products of American history.” For detailed information about the history of shorebird decoys visit RJG Antiques’ website.