Call of the Wild: Collecting Antique Bird Calls

A carved [duck hunting] duck call by Charles Perdew (1874 to 1963) of Henry, Illinois.My brother came to visit recently and because he is intent on being the best uncle ever, he arrived with four stuffed birds (all of them play the appropriate bird song and all of them must now travel up and down daily with my daughter for naps and bedtime) and his turkey call. It’s spring and the wooded strip between our house and the creek bottom is alive with birds, including our local flocks of turkeys who are all atwitter for mating season. They were eager to talk and my daughter, who loves all things birds, was, of course, transported.

But she’s not apt to start collecting bird calls soon – and not just because of my sanity, but because various hunting calls are actually one of those classic examples of when it’s important to take a closer look. Many of them are commonplace, of course, and mass-produced, but certain ones could finance a college education! You’ll find handcrafted calls for a variety of birds in the antiques marketplace, including goose, turkey, and even crow, but duck calls are, by far, the most prevalent.

American Indians had likely used mouth calling for generations, but mechanical calls came into being around the mid-19th century with the first patent recorded in 1870. Several family names became associated with the production of mechanical calls – yes, before the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty came along. Fisher, Beckhart, Turpin, Perdew (see above) – and many others – are apt to show up at yard sales for pocket change, but a Perdew call, for instance, can bring anywhere from $200 to $8,000 or more at auction, depending on type, age, and condition. These are the kinds of little yard sale finds that the database can turn into big money, so when in doubt, it definitely pays to search!