Combining a love of nature with art

A pair of plum-ruddy ducks stare out of the picture, their poised bodies captured by the camera and their shiny eyes alert to danger as only wild things are.

It looks like a perfect wilderness photograph, and it was actually snapped to accompany a biologist's article on a migrant species from South America. Who would guess these ducks began their lives as blocks of wood in a Chevy Chase basement?

But they did. Here, in the capable hands of well-known Maryland wood carver Don Allen, they took on a form and attitude so faithful to nature that Smithsonian Institution experts flew them south to pose on the gulf shore when the real birds weren't available.

That incident is perhaps one of the best compliments to Mr. Allen, who began carving life-size waterfowl a dozen years ago. Creating something truly ''comparable to the real bird,'' as he puts it, has always been his goal. So far his efforts place him high among the Rembrandts of the decoy field, where expensive collectors' items are sometimes worth several thousand dollars each. He has collected more than 300 awards for excellence. Mr. Allen's continuing quest for reality has led the self-taught artist to make individually carved feathers and use subtle shadings of oil paint, making his birds museum pieces. Currently, he is teaching one of his popular carving classes at the Audubon Naturalist Society in suburban Washington.

Recently, wooden decoys like Mr. Allen's have become popular interior-decorating accessories. The resulting scramble for hand-carved decoys has given Mr. Allen a four-year backlog of orders.

Still, the easygoing former engineer is delighted - not because he wants to make more money carving birds (he doesn't), but because the interest in decoys means that people are becoming more attuned to all natural things.

''Society is turned off on plastics; people want the real McCoy,'' Mr. Allen says.

Clearly he is only too happy to give it to them. But carving decoys, which is one of the oldest native American folk arts, is much more than just art for Mr. Allen, a dedicated environmentalist who has loved birds and regularly observed them outdoors since his boyhood days on a Nebraska farm.

''I think that if people can just see the beauty of these birds, then they are going to get involved in protecting them and managing them,'' he says.

Management is especially crucial here, he says, because the eastern shore of Maryland is the end of the southern migration route for waterfowl.

''This means the number of birds in our region is very high, and we've got to do something to protect them while they are here,'' Mr. Allen says. ''Otherwise, some species won't survive.''

Mr. Allen talks about natural competition among species and recalls watching wild mother ducks struggling to protect their babies from the bass or turtles that like to eat them.

''I used to take my shotgun to scare crows away from the young ducks,'' Mr. Allen says. Mallards and most of the smaller species are still vulnerable to crows, he adds.

Bigger species, such as the common Canadian geese, are large enough to protect their nests. ''I have seen a wild Canada goose chase three coyotes off the prairie,'' he recalls. ''Their wings are strong enough to break a person's arm.''

A life-size Canada goose is one of the largest birds Mr. Allen has carved. It required 250 hours of work. ''But it was a labor of love; there is just no way to charge plumbing prices for these birds,'' he says. ''My main purpose is to show beauty and get people - especially young people - interested in the environment.''

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