Using Scarecrows as a Garden Guard

Scarecrows have a long history and are fun to make.

| May/June 2009

  • The fun is in the details
    The fun's in the details, like an old bike with a basket full of color.
    David Liebman
  • Two scarecrows in the field
    Perhaps your scarecrow would appreciate some company.
    David Liebman
  • Accessorize your scarecrow
    A simple, bright bandana goes a long way in scarecrow decoration.
    David Liebman

  • The fun is in the details
  • Two scarecrows in the field
  • Accessorize your scarecrow

Once commonplace in the rural landscape, the scarecrow is a powerful American icon whose global roots reach to ancient times.  Although they weren’t always known as scarecrows, folks used them to scare common crop predators and pests (especially crows) away from their fields or gardens. Not all scarecrows resemble a human figure, but most modern versions are made with sticks, old clothes, stuffed feed sacks and a straw hat. The scarecrow’s purpose is to frighten, not harm, the grain-eating opportunists.

Greek farmers are credited with creating the first scarecrows that resembled a human figure more than 2,500 years ago. These ancient innovators carved wooden statues to look like Priapus, the son of the god Dionysus and the goddess Aphrodite. These homely statues were used to protect their crops and gardens from marauding bands of birds.

Japanese rice farmers and processors have used scarecrows (kakashis) to keep the rice birds at bay for centuries. These scarecrows were created from old rags, rotten meat or fish hanging on bamboo poles. The smell was so foul that birds and other animals stayed away. More recent kakashis have been given a human-like figure – some even carry weapons such as bow and arrow … and many no longer smell so bad. 

In North America, Native American people used scarecrows or bird scarers. Bird scarers were often men who howled and shouted if crows came into the cornfields. In some groups, men were considered to be unreliable and easily distracted so young women and girls kept the crops safe. But not all native people used live scarecrows. In the 19th-century southwestern United States, Zuni children competed to see who could create the most unusual scarecrow.

European immigrants brought their ideas on how to construct scarecrows to the New World. Some German settlers called their scarecrow "bootzamon" or boogeyman. Sometimes a bootzafrau or boogey wife kept the bootzamon company at the other end of the field. When grain was in short supply, farmers also offered bounties for dead crows. In fact, so many crows were killed in the 1800s it created another problem. And as insect and worm damage to crops skyrocketed, farmers went back to using scarecrows instead of a bounty to control the birds. English immigrants often created figures stuffed with straw, topped by heads carved from turnips or gourds. By the 1930s, the traditional scarecrow, with a painted face and patches on its overalls, was a common sight on American farms.

Scarecrows are still used throughout the world, but in North America they have largely disappeared in favor of chemical sprays and other more efficient bird-control technologies such as LP-gas cannons. In recent years, scarecrows have been used mostly for decoration, becoming a symbol of the harvest season. Our fascination with the scarecrow is kept alive with festivals and contests, but most scarecrows don't get a chance to scare crows anymore. 

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