Mad River Decoys by Audubon

Photo: Mad River Decoy


Mad River Decoy was established in 1990 by Jim and Nancy Henry in their barn nestled in the Green Mountains of central Vermont. Unlike large hunting decoy manufacturers, Mad River focused on conservation decoys and soon began supplying the Audubon Seabird Institute (formerly Seabird Restoration Program/Project Puffin) with decoys. Jim provided the master carving expertise and manufactured the polyethylene plastic decoys while Nancy specialized in painting the over 30 species they created.

It was a labor of love, so when retirement came calling Jim and Nancy looked for suitable candidates to take over their business. Who better to take the reins but those who pioneered the social attraction technique for which their decoys were made? In December 2016, National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute became the new owners of Mad River Decoy.

Common Tern with Decoy
Photo: Mad River Decoy

Social Attraction

The art of making and using decoys to attract birds is thought to have originated with Native American hunters/artists at least 1500 years ago. (1)

Today, bird decoys are still used in hunting, but scientists and wildlife managers also deploy them to attract a variety of species in conservation efforts.

The method of social attraction was pioneered by Audubon’s Dr. Steve Kress in the early 1970’s who successfully restored colonies of Atlantic Puffins, Common, Arctic, and Roseate Terns to nesting islands on the Maine coast. It is a method to attract colonial seabirds to safe, often historic nesting sites using social cues. Managers can create this illusion by deploying decoys and audio systems. Depending on the species, the method also may use artificial burrows, mirrors, and decoy eggs and chicks. Social attraction is often used in combination with translocation of seabird chicks and habitat improvements to encourage nesting. 

Birds recognize that decoys are not real, but in the process they discover suitable habitat and others of their species. Once the first pioneers start nesting, they usually attract others of their kind, and related species as well. Most colonial birds will return to the same colony year after year, so once a colony starts it may continue for many years if nesting conditions prove satisfactory.

The method is now widely used to encourage rare and endangered seabirds to colonize safer nesting habitats. Threats such as ocean level rise, human disturbance, volcanic eruptions and conflicts with fisheries and industry can thus be addressed. The method rests on the premise that multiple breeding sites reduce the risk of local extirpation and possible extinction. By 2012, a world review found that social attraction (and chick translocations) was used worldwide in at least 128 restoration projects for 47 seabird species in 14 countries. (2) Decoys may also be used to enhance banding and behavioral studies and while social attraction is most often used to benefit seabirds, there are also promising applications for land birds. Read the literature!

(1) Shaw, Robert. Bird Decoys of North America: Nature, History, and Art; 2010

(2) Jones, Holly P. and Stephen W. Kress. A Review of the World’s Active Seabird Restoration Projects. Journal of Wildlife Management 76(1):2–9; 2012; DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.240

Common Tern Decoys Line Up
Photo: Mad River Decoy

How We Make Durable Decoys

Polyethylene decoys have proven particularly useful in the field due to their light weight and durability. Polyethylene is the familiar plastic used to make milk jugs. Decoys start with a master, hand-carved from wood or molded from clay. A high temperature mold is made over this master and the decoys are made by rotational or injection molding (see Decoys FAQ’s). The Rotational molding, done in-house, produces a strong, hollow, lightweight decoy. Least Tern decoys are made using the injection molding process and are solid. Each decoy “blank” is trimmed, prepped for painting, and hand-painted.

Anchoring methods vary by species. Wooden dowels, threaded/bent metal rods, and custom stands are all possibilities. Decoys with 1” holes come with a plastic plug so they can be filled with sand for weight. The table below indicates anchoring methods for each species, and which items are included with decoy purchase. 

All our decoys are shipped in protective bags that also provide protection during off-season storage. These decoys are durable and stand up well to field use year after year. Many of our decoys have been in service for over 10 years. Typical maintenance includes cleaning at the end of the season and occasional touch-up painting.

Some projects have incorporated the painting into an educational program at their local schools.  It is possible to purchase decoys that are primed and painted their base color. These have been used in school and educational programs as well as by the “do it yourselfer”.

In addition to being used for field research, the decoys also have great decorative appeal, both indoors and outdoors. Decorative models may be found on the Project Puffin Online Store for sale. Several organizations have also used them in successful fundraising efforts. Let us help you with your project!

Decoy Artisan Carousel - Small

Least Tern

Piping and Snowy Plover
¼” Hole for wooden dowel

Sooty Tern

Black Tern

Common Tern

Roseate Tern

Arctic Tern

Bridled Tern

Chinese Crested Tern

Caspian Tern

Black Skimmer

Heerman’s Gull

1” Hole suitable for plastic plug or wooden dowel

Brandt’s Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Common Murre

Pigeon Guillemot

Crested Auklet
¼” / 20 Threaded Insert

American Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

Atlantic Puffin


Bent Metal Rod



Masked Booby
Stick Mounts



Masked Booby
Custom Metal Stand

More product information is available. If you would like additional details, please visit our Product Information page.

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