How to Make Martin Decoys

Increase your chances of attracting
these elusive birds!

Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 4(4): 2-4

Lester L. Keck
322 Greason Rd.
Carlisle, PA 17013

 

Photo #1: Lester Keck's house and gourd setup showing five handmade martin decoys. Note how real the decoys appear due to the lifelike attitudes in which they are perched.

In Vol. 4(2) of the Purple Martin Update, there was a letter from me describing how I finally became a Purple Martin landlord after employing wooden martin decoys at my colony site. What follows are the methods I used to make my own decoys. I demonstrate how to make two different kinds; both a three-dimensional decoy and a simpler, two-dimensional, silhouetted decoy. Hopefully, you will find these techniques useful should you decide to give decoys a try. If you do include decoys in next year's housing arrangement, be sure to use them in combination with the tape-recorded dawnsong of Purple Martins available through the PMCA. In my opinion, the tape and the decoys are an unbeatable combination when trying to get a colony established at a new site.

When selecting the type of wood for your decoys, keep in mind that some hand work is involved. Softwoods are easier to shape and sand than hardwoods. I used basswood, but white pine or any wood suitable for carving could be used. Avoid stock with knots or unusual grain patterns.


To make a three-dimensional decoy, start with a block of material 1-3/4" x 2-1/4" x 7" (Photo #2) The grain direction should run lengthwise on the block (Fig. 1). Next, make a photocopy of the full-size templates shown in Figs. 1 and 2, then cut each out along the solid line with a pair of scissors. Using the side-profile template of Fig. 1, trace the outline onto the wide side of the wooden block, as shown at the far left of Photo #2. Now cut the block down to the line. A band saw or scroll saw is ideal, but it could be cut with hand tools.

Photo #2: The three wooden blocks on the left show the progressive stages in the cutting and shaping of the three-dimensional decoy. The decoy on the far right is the simpler, two-dimensional, silhouetted martin. The thin board at the bottom is a template for tracing the side martin profile of both decoy types, used instead of the paper template.

Next, take the paper cutout from Fig. 2 and trace its outline on to the top of the wooden block cut out in the previous step (see Photo #2, second block from left). Making these body cuts will give the decoy a rough shape (see Photo #2, block second from right).

Now the hand shaping and forming begins. I used several small sanding drums, powered by a drill press, to complete about 80% of the shaping (see Photo #3). For the smaller curves around the shoulder, neck, and head areas, small hand tools such as a small carving knife, rattail file, and sanding blocks, will do the job. As you shape your decoy, have some close-up photographs of martins on hand for reference. If you're a PMCA member, you won't have far to look for these. Refer to the images in many of the Updates.

Photo #3: Here, the author uses a sanding drum in a drill press to shape and smooth his decoys. He also uses hand tools.

The simpler, two-dimensional, silhouetted decoy (shown on the far right of Photos #2 and #5) requires much less shaping and time to finish. I like to give the silhouette some thickness by using 3/4" stock. Use a piece 2-1/4" x 7" and transfer the pattern to the wood as in Photo #2, and work to the line. Round the edges in the head, breast, and upper back area, and taper the beak to a point. When you feel your wooden martin is a good resemblance of the real thing, it should be hand sanded to a smooth finish. Sand with 120 or 150 grit sandpaper.

With your sanding finished, decide what type of eyes to add to your decoy. After experimenting, I settled on plastic-type animal eyes found at a local craft shop. A dark eye of the 6mm size, with a small mounting stud works well (shown in the calipers in the center of Photo #4). Determine the location for the eye socket and drill a shallow hole to seat the eye slightly below the surface. Also drill to receive the mounting stud, which can be shortened if necessary. You may want to practice mounting an eye on a piece of scrap first as this will help you determine drill sizes needed and drilling depths (Photo #4). Do not install the eyes yet.

Photo #4: This photo shows (left front and right rear) the unfinished and finished three-dimensional martin decoy, and (right front and left rear) the unfinished and finished two-dimensional, silhouetted martin decoy. Note how the sockets are prepared for the eye "buttons," one of which is shown in the calipers.

 

With the eye sockets completed, you're ready to add some color to the decoy. I used Accent™ and Folk Art™ acrylic water-base paint, purchased at a craft shop. The eye sockets should receive only a minimum amount of paint, or seating the eyes will be difficult. Use the covers of the Purple Martin Update as a color guide to painting your decoy. Be careful not to use too many different colors. A decoy showing only one or two colors is probably more effective than one with too many colors. I used a dark blue color called "Midnight" as my main "purple" martin color, but in some areas, I darkened it even more with a bit of black, or lightened it with some blue. As seen in Photos #1 and #5, I made both male and female martin decoys. The fronts of females require a light gray paint. When your paint job is finished, you will need to weatherproof the decoys, especially if you are going to use them outdoors. To waterproof them, apply two coats of clear, exterior, satin finish. This is available in spray cans. Install the eyes with a drop of waterproof glue after the clear coat has dried. The shiny eyes really give life to the decoy.

Photo #5: This photo shows the metal clips that can be used to mount the decoys to a perching dowel. Also shown, is a preliminary stage in the painting of a female martin.

These decoys can be easily attached to a perch rod. Go to the electrical supply section of your local hardware store and purchase some 1/2" metal clips, as shown in Photo #5. Fasten one to the underside of the decoy in the desired location. Bend each clip as needed for rods smaller than 1/2". This method will keep your decoy in place even in strong winds. As can be seen in Photo #1, I have decoys perched on the roof of my houses, on perch rods above the gourds, inside the entrance hole of a gourd, and even one hanging on the outside of a gourd. This bird is my latest version and is a more complex design (see Photos #1 and #6).

Photo #6: This is an example of Lester Keck's latest decoy design. It is much more complex, having a spread tail, crossed wings, and a turned head. Note the detail in the individual feathers. This decoy is quite impressive, especially considering that it is only about the tenth decoy Lester has ever carved.

 

In no way do I claim to be an authority on the use of Purple Martin decoys. All I know is what I've experienced by using them at my colony site. I firmly believe they played a part in the beginning of my active colony. Could it be decoys merely serve as a curiosity or confidence booster for investigating martins? If so, it's possible decoys could be beneficial in attracting Purple Martins to a new breeding site, and I would say they're worth a try. [Editorial comment: Experiments with colonially-breeding seabirds have shown that decoys do not need to be extremely detailed in order to be effective, especially when accompanied with recordings of the desired bird's vocalizations.]

 

Lester Keck is a 46-year-old design drafter. He has been a martin landlord for three years.


Copyright 1993 by Purple Martin Conservation Association. All Rights Reserved.

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