Little piles of moist mud stabbed with paper feathers could be good enough for decoys, even for the modern hunter.
"We were hunting for ducks," says Chester Wilcox, recalling a decade-old excursion. "I kept on saying to my friend, 'No way that's going to work.' "
Wilcox's friend must have endowed the mud with the breath of life, because the ducks gathered overhead as if there were a convention.
Wilcox constructs decoys – and they, too, come to life. He delicately carves fine wood to produce bird replicas of all sorts, including pintail ducks, mallards and woodpeckers, among many others that fill his menagerie. He'll be one of many artists who will display their work this weekend at the 39th annual Wildlife Art Festival in Sacramento, one of the oldest such affairs west of the Mississippi.
As original folk Americana, with roots going back thousands of years to creations of tule and reed made by Paiute Indians, decoys are coveted by birdwatchers and hunters for their beauty and tradition – not to mention their practicality.
But enthusiasts mainly flock to the show because they just can't get enough exposure to the outdoors and avian wildlife, says association member and decoy artist Jim Burcio.
"If you can carve something that's really birdie, people are going to come to you – as if you had a puppy in your arms," Burcio says. "If you're putting up a good representation of that bird, people are going to 'ooh' and 'ahh.' "
Outdoor lovers like Wilcox don't always see a bird in flight for long enough. Nor can they visually capture all the unusual ways a bird spreads its wings when it swoops and turns. After a glimpse, the intimate details of a bird seemingly vanish into the sky.
"The best (decoys) look unbelievably realistic," says Wilcox, who will turn 70 Saturday. "In some cases, they look better than the real bird."
It's the passion for realism and attention to detail that glues collectors, woodcarvers and festivalgoers.
Wilcox's hunting and carving experience spans more than 60 years. His love affair demonstrates the appeal and patience needed to produce the art. Some of the finer pieces, painted by hand and airbrush, can take more than 100 hours to complete and sell for thousands of dollars.
The popularity of decoy art regionally began in 1971 with about a dozen dedicated hunters who carved their way into a sort of Renaissance. True art was being pushed around by fake plastic renderings. So the group that initially used decoys for hunting began holding competitions, starting in Emeryville. After a nomadic beginning, the festival finally settled in Sacramento in 1982.
The Pacific Flyway Decoy Association, which sponsors the event, offers seminars year-round in beginning woodworking in Sacramento, Davis and Galt. Wilcox, an association board member, operates a decoy-supply store from his Citrus Heights home.
But the highlight of the association's year is the festival. All ages are welcome at the event, which will include mini-seminars and competitions, and even activities for children.
Wilcox recommends that children interested in decoys start with a bar of soap and a Popsicle stick. Before long, their art will take flight.