Over the long history of waterfowl hunting, decoys have been created in a wide range of different shapes and sizes. Wood, plastic, magnum, and motion decoys have all been used to great effect. Dead ducks have been propped up with sticks where they fell to bid their fellow birds to the gunners. Even live ducks have been used, tethered to the earth to prevent their escapes. But long before white men walked the shorelines of North America, duck hunting was already a part of the heritage of Native Americans.
Before the introduction of firearms by Europeans, Indians used bows and arrows for all the forms of hunting they did. That included duck hunting, which required drawing the birds into extremely close range. To do this, early duck hunters used a variety of bulrush named tule to weave incredibly lifelike and buoyant decoys.
Tule is a common marsh plant that grows across North America. It stands up to ten feet tall and has a complex root system that land managers have used for soil erosion control. Tule reeds are the stalks swimmers sometimes use in movies as an impromptu snorkel. Indians used the plant for a variety of products, including decoys, canoes, baskets, and clothing. When a hunter stole away to the water’s edge to shoot a duck, he was almost entirely outfitted with the plant to ensure success.
Indians combined tule with the feathers and stretched skins from previously killed ducks. Together, they made decoys that are only slightly inferior to the plastic blocks modern companies produce. The Indian versions were as much art as they were tools, with dyed heads and accurate paint schemes based on the species they were intended for.
Native Americans may have used these tule decoys extensively, but because of the materials used and the climate of most villages the fake birds didn’t last long enough for archaeologists to uncover. Fortunately, a dung-excavating venture in the arid southwestern US changed that.
In 1911, two men were hired to mine bat guano from Nevada’s Lovelock Cave. Formed by a long-since vanished lake — Lake Lahontan — the cave served as a storage and living space for millennia. David Pugh and James Hart were sent to remove the droppings for use as fertilizer by a San Francisco company. While there, the pair found several native artifacts in and around the cave.
While their find was a boon for science, their methods were far from scientific. The guano group essentially robbed the site, taking only the best items and leaving the rest behind. A year later, the University of California’s L.L. Loud was sent to collect what artifacts he could. He took away some 10,000 items and returned in 1924 to continue excavating the area. It was this 1924 expedition that led to the decoys’ discovery.
The birds found in Lovelock were canvasbacks, dyed red and black, with the iconic slope of the head included in the natives’ design. Some were unfinished, but the fully rigged blocks were wrapped with real feathers taken from previous hunts. The decoys measured roughly a foot long by five inches tall — about half the size of a live drake.
Canvasbacks are famous for their storied past in the Atlantic Flyway’s Chesapeake Bay region, but a sizable portion of their population migrates south via the Pacific Flyway. Cans are diving ducks that feed primarily on tubers. Their diet necessitates deep waters to allow for their foraging methods. Combined with their preference for bulrushes as cover, Lake Lahontan made for an ideal stopover as the canvasbacks winged south each winter.
Today, the decoys are housed as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s collection of artifacts. According to Lois George-Kane and Vickie Kane — traditional knowledge keepers from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Stillwater and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, respectively — these decoys are still being created and used by traditional hunters today, thousands of years after the design was invented. As canvasbacks continue to rebound from low population numbers in the 1980s and ‘90s, this early form of duck decoy could be used thousands of years from now on future birds.