Scarecrows - Gaunt guardians of the garden

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

This scarecrow can be found guarding the community garden in downtown Cape Girardeau.

By B. Ray Owen ~ Southeast Missouri

Scarecrows work. Sometimes.

"The scarecrows will work for a while," says Gerald Bryan, an agronomist with the University of Missouri Extension Service at Jackson, Mo. "Once the birds find that the scarecrow won't really hurt them, they use it for a roost."

Kathleen Vinyard of Sunny Hill Garden and Florist agrees.

"Most scarecrows won't move," said Vinyard. "The birds eventually get used to them."

The guardians of the gardens that dot the rural American scene may not make the fashion pages, but the birds will respect them for a while, and that's what it is all about.

The scarecrow can be as simple as a crossed stake, draped by an old shirt, with an empty bleach jug head and an old straw hat, said Bryan. Or, it can be an elaborate straw-stuffed figure with fancy clothes, bits of aluminum foil for sparkle, or other adornments to create a special scarecrow's individuality, adds Vinyard.

Rubber masks, plastic bottles, straw and other items find their way into the scarecrow's anatomy. An indescribable array of secondhand clothing and assorted noisy trinkets means that no two scarecrows are alike.

As they age, scarecrows seem to take on a life of their own. A hat brim slowly changes shape, once-colorful clothing fades in the sun and rain, or the entire figure takes on a lazy slouch. By the end of October, scarecrows are ready to add their ghostly presence to the Halloween scene.

The concept of the scarecrow is as old as farming itself.

Scarecrows in history

Scarecrows were used in the Nile River valley 3,000 years ago to protect wheat fields from flocks of quail.

In England, farmers used to hang dead crows on fence posts.

The Zuni Indians used live scarecrows in the southeast part of the United States. They perched small boys on platforms to scare flocks of birds away from their maize.

In Pennsylvania the scarecrow was known as the "bootzamon," or bogeyman. A "bootzafraw," or bogey wife, often stood guard at one end of a field. Pennsylvania Dutch farmers were certain that their airy phantoms seemingly wafting through the corn tassels would assure a bumper crop.

Many tall tales abound about the faith that country folks put into their creations.

One farmer boasted to his peers about his "skinny" scarecrow guardian, saying the birds became so scared of "Slim Jim" that they even brought the corn back they swiped last year.

The scarecrow has long graced American literature. Who can forget Dorothy's unflappable friend in search of a brain in the Hollywood classic, "The Wizard of Oz"?

As farms mechanized in the 20th century, so did scarecrows. Some of the contraptions were lashed to windmills or electric motors and worked in strange mechanical ways. But most farm folks have returned to their reliable standby the common scarecrow.

In recent years, many U.S. communities have established scarecrow festivals that attract thousands of people and hundreds of homemade scarecrow entries for contests.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: