A scarecrow, or hay-man, is created in the shape of a human and usually dressed in old clothes. The mannequin is often placed in open fields to discourage birds, such as crows or sparrows, from disturbing and feeding on recently cast seed and growing crops. It is a quintessential symbol of fall, and one of the most familiar figures of our rural landscape.
As originally conceived, the scarecrow was a practical solution to an age-old problem. Thought to have been used more than three thousand years ago by Egyptians to protect the wheat fields along the Nile River, scarecrows were created to do exactly what the name implies: to frighten off crows and other foraging birds.
In Medieval times, young boys and men wandered the fields or stood on platforms to throw rocks and stones at the birds. As farms grew larger, there were never enough “bird-scarers,” consequently the human-like effigy became a common replacement. Farmers stuffed sacks with straw, used gourds to shape heads and faces, and then leaned these creatures against poles to create “straw men.”
In the United States, human-like scarecrows dressed in old clothes and a red bandana tied around their necks became known as “bogeymen.” In Germany, they were constructed to resemble witches. The Dutch would often create a female companion, dressed in a long dress and a bonnet, to accompany the scarecrow. It was believed that these comrades would stroll the fields at night keeping company.
In Thailand, they were used as a protection of the home to scare away ghosts and other unwanted spirits. Greek farmers devised wooden scarecrows to scare birds away from their vineyards, while the Japanese crafted scarecrows to protect the rice fields, dressing them in raincoats and straw hats, and even giving them swords so they may be seen more intimidating in appearance becoming known as Kuebiko, the Shinto deity of agriculture.
Apparently, the figure itself was not the only repellent to the birds; the smell of humans, which emanated from the costumes, was repugnant as well. Japanese farmers draped old rags, meat, or fish bones on their constructions to repel any creatures and birds that may approach.
In an apparent style of recycling, the scarecrows bearing rotting produce were burned after the harvest, a kind of celebration to return the nutrients of potassium and nitrogen to the earth.
Other birds attracted to farm products include doves, blackbirds, grackles, sparrows, turkeys, and quail, all drawn to the fresh seeds, as well the nutrients used to fertilize the young plants. As the fowl scavenge in the garden, they will seek the nuts, worms, baby moths, or beetles that subsist in the top layers of soil. Crows are particularly harmful, though, as they hunt in flocks affecting great damage and destruction of crops.
The scarecrow has survived the passage of time in many parts of the world, particularly in Japan and in rural parts of Europe where agriculture is still a common industry. But what would the fall season be without the iconic hay-man surrounded by pumpkins and cornstalks?
Sometimes, still used in small garden patches, we mostly enjoy spotting them around the landscape as decoration, whether scary-looking or funny, used as symbols of fall and the harvest season or as part of Halloween décor.
Since they have evolved into a kindler gentler form, usually comical, jovial, or childlike in appearance made from straw and newspaper wearing old clothes, the hay-man is charged with protecting your flowerbeds, and potted plants. Should you decide to fashion your own scarecrow, according to folklore, there are some guiding principles and theories on the supervision and treatment of your humanoid:
Treat him or her with respect
Shade him if possible in extreme heat
Offer shelter when there are storms
Visit often keeping him company, so he will not get lonely and sense that he is not appreciated
If he is to be used again in the next fall season, keep him in a safe place, and thank him for his service (otherwise, he may become unhappy or disgruntled and wander off on his own in search of other heartbroken and depressed straw persons)
Hints for Building a Scarecrow
It is your scarecrow…let your imagination be your guide. The materials should be simple but sturdy enough to face sun, wind, and rain.
Create a frame using wood pieces, PVC pipe or a garden trellis might work well. An old shirt and pants stuffed with straw, hay, or plastic bags will make a fine body, arms, and legs; for a lady, use an old colorful dress.
The head can be fashioned from a plastic pumpkin with a wig or mop for hair, and you can add a floppy hat. Give the face some personality with painted eyes, nose, and mouth…make it quirky or scary, whatever your mood.
Firmly attach the figure to the frame using staples or nails, or try tying with twine. If you decide not to build a frame, you can use an old chair; there is no rule that says your scarecrow must be standing.
Lastly, make sure that figure and frame are securely fastened and affixed so it does not fly away with the wind.
Scarecrow festivals have become increasingly popular around the world. The Urchfont Scarecrow Festival in the United Kingdom, which began in the 1990s, has an attendance rate of up 10,000 people every year.The world record for the largest gathering of scarecrows in one place, which featured a collection of 3,812 figures, was held Aug. 7, 2014, at the National Forest Adventure Farm in the U.K.
A village in Japan has only thirty-five inhabitants, but the village boasts more than three hundred and fifty scarecrows.
A farmer in England built a scarecrow of Lady Gaga as she appeared on the 2010 British Awards.
St. Charles, Illinois, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, each host annual scarecrow festivals that attract tens of thousands curious on lookers.
The “pumpkin people”— scarecrows with pumpkin heads performing various tasks such as playing a fiddle or riding wooden horses—appear in the autumn to the valley region of Nova Scotia, Canada.
The most famous scarecrow, of course, is the character in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” who is on a quest to find a brain.