Wednesday, October 19, 2011


There's an art show going on right now, with some incredibly ingenious pumpkin and scarecrow displays on porches and in front yards. 

Those silly structures with broomstick backbones have been around for thousands of years.  The ancestor to our modern-day scarecrow was first found along the Nile River in Egypt.  The Egyptian farmers put wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets.  The farmers hid in the fields and scared the quail into the nets, and then they took them home as part of their food source.

In Greece, the vineyard keepers carved wooden scarecrows resembling one of their gods.  They found that by putting them in their vineyards, the birds stayed away from the grapes. 

In Mexico and Guatemala, and Aztec and Mayan descendants placed crudely carved hawks with outspread wings and glassy eyes on top of posts to guard their fields of maize, beans, and squash.

Japanese farmers used kakashis, which means 'something that smells badly.'  They hung old rags, meat, or fish bones from bamboo poles in their fields.  Then they lit the sticks on fire, and the smell was so bad that birds and other animals stayed away from the rice.

Centuries ago European farmers used young boys, 9 years old and older, as bird scarers or bird shooers.  The boys patrolled wheat fields carrying bags of stones.  If crows or starlings landed in the field, they'd chase them off by waving their arms and throwing the stones.  After the Great Plague killed almost half of Europe's population in 1348, landowners couldn't find enough bird scarers to protect their crops, so they stuffed sacks with straw, carved faces in turnips or gourds, and made scarecrows.

The boys, and the girls, who survived the plague and still worked as bird scarers had to patrol 2 or 3 acres by themselves.  So, instead of stones, they carried clappers made of 2 or 3 pieces of wood joined at one end.  The noise made by these clappers scared off whole flocks of birds.  Bird scarers patrolled the fields until the early 1800s when factories and mines opened and offered children better paying jobs.

Native American men sat on raised platforms and shouted if crows or woodchucks came near their corn.  Some tribes moved into huts in their fields during growing season to protect their crops. 

So, there we have it.  A glimpse into the life of the little fellow who has become our symbol for the fall harvest season.  His usefulness is no more.  Farming technology has found new ways of protecting the crops.  Yet, we keep on bringing him to life and putting him on display.  Maybe it's his humble appearance, dressed in shabby clothes stuffed with straw, that makes him a friend to all.