Carve a turkey, sculpt a duck

Editorial Notebook

November 18, 2006|By Bill Thompson

Bird carving takes on national prominence next week in nearly every household when someone is anointed to pick up a knife and fork and perform the uniquely American ritual of portioning the Thanksgiving Day turkey.

But another kind of bird carving - also a predominantly American pastime but which has nothing to do with culinary art - knows no seasonal limits. In countless shops, shacks and basements from Camden, Maine, to Corpus Christi, Texas, men and women spend hours hunched over blocks of wood, painstakingly shaping them into bird sculptures.

Though they are generically referred to as decoys - a term hearkening to the old days when carvers made fake birds specifically to lure real birds within shooting range - very few of today's carvings venture far from the bookshelf or fireplace mantel. For one thing, many are simply too fragile to expose to mud and water. And for another, collectors who pay thousands of dollars for a decorative canvasback or pintail would be foolish to shoot over it when a plastic decoy can be had for a few bucks.

Early decoy makers used simple tools - saws, hatchets, sharp knives and sandpaper - to bring a kind of rigid life to their birds. Contemporary carvers have the same implements, but also rely upon specialized power tools that, in the right hands, can result in wood birds so incredibly lifelike that you expect them to take flight any moment.

The late Eastern Shoreman Lem Ward, who with his brother Steve is credited with helping nudge decoy making from a craft to an art, privately lamented modern carvers' heavy reliance on burning tools and other etching devices to simulate a bird's feather patterns. The exquisite detail, said Mr. Ward, "makes the carving purtier than the real thing."

Carving, or sculpting, birds is growing in popularity. It is not unusual for someone recently retired to take it up as a novice and, in a relatively short time, produce decent work. Wannabe decoy carvers can turn to how-to books and videos and attend workshops that teach tips and shortcuts that took the old masters years to learn.

Collecting old decoys is big business, and rare birds by long-deceased carvers easily fetch six-figure prices. Maryland became the marketing epicenter of the decoy universe last winter when the auction firm of Guyette & Schmidt, which has sold more than $82 million worth of decoys and waterfowling objects, moved from Maine to St. Michaels.

Newer decorative carvings draw lots of praise; some of them take more time to finish than a real bird takes to hatch and grow into maturity. But the older pieces - cracked, chipped and so simple in form that they resemble abstract art - have a special appeal. Before it was tucked out of public view so workers could renovate the restaurant in Easton's Tidewater Inn, an unpainted preening swan was a fixture in the Decoy Bar for nearly 50 years. Instead of feathers, the bird is covered with dozens of autographs of people who stopped by for a drink and a close look at the carving. The bird bears retired newscaster Walter Cronkite's signature, as well as Colt legend John Unitas and actor John Forsythe. Frank Zappa's autograph is thought to be like the swan - a fake.

Migratory waterfowl literally flock to Maryland's tidewater country because of its strategic location along the Atlantic Flyway. The Canada goose, perhaps the best known of the birds that winter here, started coming weeks ago. Their arrival stirs the hearts of many hunters, whose idea of a good time is dressing in camouflage, sitting inside a blind on a cold and rainy morning and drawing down on a large bird with a Canadian accent.

Goose hunting, like decoy collecting, can be an expensive hobby. After tabulating costs of travel, overnight lodging, meals, a guide, a shotgun and shells, and cold-weather garb, the average cost of bagging a single goose can be many hundreds of dollars.

Diehard hunters accept the costs as worth the experience, especially if they get to take home a goose in time for Thanksgiving Day, in which case they won't be carving a turkey.

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