Golden days and autumn breezes herald the arrival of fall festivals and one of the season's favorite icons -- the scarecrow. Children's classes and happy homes across the country dress the smiling harbingers of fall with colorful clothes and hats set at jaunty angles, and surround them with bright pumpkins and corn stalks. Americana for all. But scarecrows dating back 3,000 years weren't so cheery.
According to Kathy Warnes, author of the website History Because It's Here, Egyptians farmers were among the first people to use scarecrows. To protect their wheat fields along the Nile from flocks of quail, "farmers installed wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets," says Warnes. "Then they hid in the fields, scared the quail into the nets and took them home to eat for dinner."
The person-like scarecrows of today evolved from Greek farmers in 2,500 B.C. carving wood pieces to look like Priapus, the son of the god Dionysus and the goddess Aphrodite, "who supposedly was ugly enough to scare birds away from the vineyards and ensure good harvests," says Warnes. Greek farmers then painted their scarecrows purple and put a sickle in one hand to symbolize a good harvest, and a club in the other hand to scare away birds. The Romans, seeing their success, copied the Greek farmers and introduced Priapus scarecrows to the people of Europe.
Japanese farmers were making scarecrows to protect their rice fields at the same time as the Greeks and Romans. According to Warnes, "they made scarecrows called kakashis, shaped like people. They dressed the kakashis in a raincoat and a round straw hat and often added bows and arrows to make them look more threatening."
In medieval Britain, young boys and girls would patrol the fields as live scarecrows. These children would chase away birds by throwing pebbles and waving around their arms. After the Black Death of the mid-1300s wiped out half of Britain's population, farmers decided to rely on nonhuman scarecrows. They stuffed sacks with straw and added gourd faces, gaudy garments or raincoats, and all manner of swords and sticks to these fierce-looking scarecrows.
Today's scarecrows are more fun than frightening, resembling children's toys more than the menacing figures of yore.
This is because scarecrows don't actually scare birds in residential gardens. Birds quickly become accustomed to statues, sculptures and other stationary yard art. In his book "Scarecrows: Making Harvest Figures and Other Yard Folks," gardener, horticulturist and lecturer Felder Rushing says crows are much too smart to be startled by a fixed figure.
Instead, movement is a stronger deterrent for birds. This explains homegrown approaches as suspending shiny, reflective compact discs and shimmering metallic strips.
Customers of Wild Birds Unlimited frequently ask owner Wade Kammin how to keep birds off fruits and vegetables in home gardens. He takes a multifaceted approach.
"When it comes to keeping birds out of fruit and vegetable gardens," says Kammin, "sturdy netting is probably the best, but scare tactics can be useful." Items that move in the wind and reflect light, such as Mylar/metallic ribbons, hanging reflective Mylar owls and scare "eyes," work better that nonmoving plastic owls or rubber snakes.
"It is important to remember that we use the birds' natural suspicions of items they perceive as scary or unknown and, because birds will get used to seeing any item over the course of time, it is very important to rotate the specific tactic frequently or the efficacy will be lost," says Kammin. "The attractiveness of the foods being protected and what other food options birds have in the area will also affect success."
So, for a seasonal celebration, point your browser to Pinterest and make your own scarecrow. But for no-fail bird boundaries, take a lesson from history, don your raincoat, set up a lawn chair and take the first shift swinging your umbrella.