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Scaring Crows (and fascinating people) for more than 3000 years

Written by  Nikki van Coller
| in Tuin
| February 10, 2015

Scarecrows have been used by humans for thousands of years to help save their crops by “scaring off” hungry birds and - depending on the era and cultural influence - warding off crop diseases, ensuring a long spring or keeping evil spirits away.

Scarecrows are known by many different names, including Hodmedod, Murmet, Hay-man and Tattie Bogal in England alone.

         In Malaysia they speak of an Orang-Orang; in Holland it’s a Vogelverschrikker and in the Philippines a Tao-tao, while the Czechs call it a Strašák. Whatever they are called, they have been part and parcel of a large number of cultures ever since humans first started living off the land.
       Birds have always been a problem for farmers, especially since all farmers rely on their harvests to make an income, feed their families – or both. It stands to reason then, that the origin of scarecrows dates back thousands of years, with various forms appearing throughout the ages. The first recorded mention of scarecrows goes back all the way to ancient Egyptian farmers, who covered wooden frames with nets to scare away (and catch) the quails that were tucking into their wheat fields.  
        Greek and then Roman farmers carved wooden statues to look like Priapus, son of the god Dionysus and the goddess Aphrodite. Priapus was said to be hideously ugly, so ugly that even birds were frightened of him.   Images of the Norse god Odin and his ravens Huginn and Muninn have also been considered a reference to early scarecrows.feb-tuin-2
        Japanese farmers made their own version of scarecrows to protect their rice fields.  They would hang old rags, along with decaying meat, or fish bones from bamboo poles in their fields.  These scarecrows were called ‘kakashis’ – meaning “something that smells bad” - and even though stinky scarecrows are not that widely used in Japan today, the name has stuck.
        In Medieval Britain, children were used as live scarecrows or bird scarers. These small children would patrol the fields carrying bags of stones and later handmade wooden “clappers” to scare the birds away from the crops. But after the Great Plague which killed a large part of the population, English farmers started using stuffed sacks and placing them in the field in the hopes that the crows would think the fields were still being patrolled.
        In the USA, around the 1800s, immigrants from Europe brought a variety of different scarecrow ideas with them, including the German Bootzamon and Bootzenfrau, which most closely resemble the scarecrows of today. The Bootzamon (from the English word Boogeyman) was an ominous-looking, human-shaped scarecrow that was made to look like a witch. Besides scaring off birds, the Bootzamon was also supposed to hurry the spring season along.
feb-tuin-1        No matter their geographic location or cultural roots, scarecrows worldwide and throughout the ages have always had one thing in common - they were made to scare! So it should come as no surprise that there have been many scary movies, stories and even poems about scarecrows.
        Kakashi is a 2001 Japanese horror film that chronicles the tale of Kaoru Yoshikawa, whose search for her missing brother leads her to an isolated village full of dark secrets. Other horror movies made about the field-protectors include B Grade movies like Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Psycho Scarecrow, Dark Harvest, Scarecrows, Scarecrow Slayer and the 2011 remake of Scarecrows, Husk.
       Scarecrows appear in poetry too, including in the works of Sir Walter de la Mare and Khalil Gibran, whose scarecrows said: "The joy of scaring is a deep and lasting one, and I never tire of it."
        The most well-known scarecrow in modern culture is undoubtedly the scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a novel by L. Frank Baum. In the story, the scarecrow is rescued from his pole by Dorothy, and then joins her on her journey, along with the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion to find the wizard of Oz. The Tin Woodman wants a heart, the Cowardly Lion seeks courage and the Scarecrow wants the wizard to give him brains. Throughout the story, the scarecrow demonstrates that he already has the brains he seeks and is later recognized as "the wisest man in all of Oz".
        Scarecrow use dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of crop spraying, as well as mechanical devices like the klopotec, a wooden windmill-like device on a high wooden pole, which is used as a bird scarer in the vineyards of traditional wine-growing landscapes of Slovenia, Austria, and Croatia. But despite the alternatives, human fascination with these man-made mannequins has not diminished. There are thousands of scarecrow festivals being held every year, around the world.
        In today’s more conscious times, where the protection of the environment is becoming increasingly more important and with the global move towards more natural, organic eating and living, handmade scarecrows are making a comeback in veggie patches, gardens and fields, as more and more people opt for organic farming methods over poisonous crop sprays.
  feb-tuin-3      If you have a veggie patch – no matter how big or small – why not make your own scarecrow? This is not only a good deterrent for winged creatures wanting to savour your supper, it also makes an interesting garden feature and acts as a fantastic outlet for your creativity.
        The tutorial below gives a few ideas to help you get started. Shiny things like old CDs or mirrors help to ward off birds, so consider incorporating them in your design. Use your imagination – it doesn’t have to be a man, it could be a woman, a child or even a dog – as in our tutorial. Don’t forget to consider the weather when gathering your materials; you could even dress your scarecrow in a raincoat to protect the insides. Also ensure that the soil or base in which you plant your creation is sturdy enough to prevent the scarecrow from toppling over. Movement and noise are also great tactics that will frighten the feathered foragers away.