I was visiting another city recently – a city where I am buying a house and will soon move with my family. On a Saturday that was predicted to be hot and sunny, clouds had rolled in, there was a drum of distant thunder and a few raindrops fell. Nonetheless, the annual neighborhood yard sale went on as scheduled. I walked a lazy circuit up and down streets whose names I failed to note, stopping now at this yard and now at another to see what was offered. My fellow junk hunters were few. A utility crew repaired a telephone pole that had been knocked out by a presumably intoxicated driver the night before. Chickens hunted through a front yard overgrown with grass and blackberry bushes. I came at last to a home located on the arterial where an elderly couple was selling, among other things, two duck decoys.
One of the old wooden decoys had come loose at the neck and was in poor shape. The other was solid and had most of its paint still. The woman wanted three dollars for it and I handed her a five dollar bill. Passing me my change, she asked hopefully if I perhaps collected ducks too? No, I had to admit that I did not collect them, but I liked them very much. I went on my way and later that evening asked my hostess (a former graduate student in ornithology) if she could identify the species the decoy was intended to represent. I had been unable to do so. She made a couple hesitant guesses, then pulled out her field guide. After turning pages for a while she said that while my decoy exhibited decorative elements belonging to several species, it matched none of them precisely.
I had assumed that duck decoys were painted to represent actual species, but now I wonder. Do painters of decoys indulge in artistic license? Might they intentionally paint a decoy so that it looked like a plausible but not specifically identifiable kind of duck? I had supposed the purpose of a decoy was to lull ducks of a single species into a false security by making them believe their own kind had already inspected a pond and found it safe. But perhaps decoys like mine are used to rouse the curiosity of multiple species by presenting them with a decoy which, while clearly a duck, is a novel and unfamiliar kind of duck. A mallard or a northern shoveler flying overhead may wonder who is this mysterious stranger? and so descend for a closer look. Is it possible that ducks, like humans, fall prey so easily to the lure of the new and exotic?