May 09, 2023
By Chelsea Reed
If you’ve ever been to the Outer Banks, you have probably seen a rustic bird decoy in a local shop or art gallery at some point in your visit. These waterfowl lookalikes were once the hunter’s best “feathered” friends. Hunting waterfowl was an important way of life for locals of the Outer Banks and Tidewater areas. Their meat and feathers were a major source of food and clothing decoration. Let’s take a look at how this fascinating tradition started and the future of bird decoys today.
Did you know that Native Americans carved wooden bird decoys to attract prey as early as the 1600s? This technique was quickly caught on by European settlers. By the 1800s, professional carvers created elaborate waterfowl decoys to sell to hunters across the United States. But in Northeastern North Carolina, these wooden birds were especially prized for bringing food home to their local families from the shallow marshy waters. Sure enough, the waterfowl decoy quickly adopted a distinctive Outer Banks style of its own. They were often made with local materials such as sail cloth and wire to help keep them afloat on the choppy sound waters. Wooden decoys were also popular.
Waterfowl decoys became symbiotic with the coastal American hunting scene by the early 1900s. They were very popular in hunting clubs such as the Whalehead Club in Corolla. However, there were very few waterfowl hunting restrictions then. Populations began to decline as more birds were hunted for sport rather than survival. Realizing what was happening, the United States government began to form stricter laws. Fortunately, the heritage of the decoy did not go away. Instead, its role changed from a workhorse to a fine art form.
Some local Outer Banks hunters continue to enjoy using traditional decoys to hunt waterfowl for the family dinner table. Collector enthusiasts even engage in a vintage decoy market. Today, North Carolinian artists have transformed their heritage into an original art genre. These art pieces are not meant to be in the water, of course. But the artistic freedom gives room for carved details that are especially striking. Sometimes these pieces are judged in fine art shows for prizes, such as Seaside Art Gallery’s International Miniature Art Show. It’s a wonderful way to remember local North Carolina history and culture.
Chelsea Reed is a copywriter who writes winning content, articles, blogs, and websites from her base in North Carolina. She might not be building sandcastles or swashbuckling with pirates these days, but the Outer Banks beaches continue to keep her young at heart.
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