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.
Make your own scarecrow
Constructing a scarecrow is a lot of fun, and it gives you a chance to reuse old items you have around the house. As an artistic decoration, scarecrows can be creative activity for the entire family. Your scarecrow can be as simple as a hat on a pole with some clothing hung on it or one complete with face, head, hair, hat, legs and feet.
How to make a scarecrow: Collect old clothing – a long-sleeved shirt or jacket, a pair of pants, overalls, garden gloves (for the hands) and boots or shoes.
Traditional stuffing is straw, but old rags, leaves or anything waterproof can be used. Newspapers work if stuffed inside plastic bags.
You will need two pieces of wood or pipe for the frame. One piece (vertical stake) should be long enough to accommodate the clothing height and sufficient additional length to be driven securely into the ground. The shorter piece (horizontal stake) should approximate shirt’s sleeve lengths combined. Nail, screw or lash the pieces together at shoulder height.
For the head, stuff a cloth bag, a pillowcase, a “bag” made from old pantyhose, milk jugs or gourds. Secure the head onto the vertical stake with a string. For facial features use permanent markers, waterproof paints or sew on material or buttons for eyes and a nose. Hair can be made from yarn, raffia, an old mop or strips of fabric. Fasten on a straw hat.
Next, place the shirt onto the frame using the horizontal stake as the arms. Button up the shirt, add the stuffing and tie the shirt’s waist so the stuffing stays in place. Tie the leg ends of a pair of pants and stuff. Use hot-melt glue, safety pins, rope and thread to hold the scarecrow together. Prop leg ends into shoes and pin stuffed gloves to ends of shirt sleeves. Leaving a flap or two of clothing for the wind to catch might help your scarecrow do its job.
Once you are satisfied, go ahead and install your scarecrow in the garden to keep the birds away or along the front sidewalk to greet visitors. Some folks give their scarecrow a chair to sit in or a bicycle to ride. Use your imagination … and remember that making changes to your scarecrow might keep the birds at bay a little bit longer. Either way, dotting the countryside with scarecrows will bring many smiles and help keep this icon alive for future generations to enjoy.
Ruth Ditchfield is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in nature and gardening. She grew up on a small farm and now calls Inverness, Florida, home. In her travels she keeps a lookout for creative scarecrows.