Go Back
Print this page

Food + Cooking

Extreme Frugality: If It Only Had A Brain

When the flocks descend, family time revolves around making a scarecrow. Fast.

If only I were a Seneca Indian living in upstate New York a hundred or so years ago. Those guys knew how to scare birds. Instead of employing a lifeless scarecrow that eventually loses its effectiveness when the birdbrain birds* realize the dude hasn’t moved an inch for months, the Senecas marinated corn kernels in an herbal potion that, when ingested, sent them flying in dizzying circles, chasing away all other avian predators.

Yes, the birds have joined their six-legged comrades in the pitched Battle at Carter Bottoms (our recently coined name for the lower vegetable plot), compelling Lisa to finally enter the fray. After discovering crows munching on nearly all her watermelon seedlings and sunflower plants last Friday afternoon, she stood guard for the remaining three hours of daylight to protect her remaining babies. Not until the sun finally dropped behind the trees and the last cawing crow fled for the night did she drop her guard—but she also didn’t waste any time in planning our counterattack.

“Kids!” she yelled above the din of squabbling teens, stomping into the house covered with mosquito bites and slinging mud everywhere. “It’s scarecrow-making time!”

And thus was born Samantha Lee of the six-foot frame, rainbow-colored dreads, and Barbie-slim waist. To us, she is a goddess; to the birds, we hope, a fright.

Do scarecrows work? These days, many people swear by more modern methods, like hanging glittering used CDs and tin plates around the field. My brother-in-law scares birds away with computer-controlled noise-making cannons. In fact, his family’s company sells and installs these bird-deterrents for farmers and airports all over the world.

“The main drawback to scarecrows,” my friend Bill Rupert says, “is they’re not very mobile—something you might not have realized, Hodding. But, they do work really, really well—until they don’t. The birds eventually catch on, and then the scarecrows just make a great roost.”

Maybe the problem is they’re just not enough like the original scarecrows, which were modeled after Priapus, son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. In Greek mythology, he frightened away birds simply by baring his legendarily horrific face (or perhaps his erection; it, too, was hideous—hideously large, that is), and grape growers began carving anatomically correct wooden likenesses of him and setting them in their fields. The Romans copied this practice (along with everything else), spreading scarecrows throughout their world—until followers of Christianity gave the boot to the idolatrous, immodest figures. And so the Europeans returned to scaring crows and other birds the old-fashioned way—making young boys stand in fields all day all day, throwing rocks at every winged intruder. After the Black Plague wiped out much of the labor force, farmers stuffed boys’ clothes with straw and planted their likenesses in the fields. We’ve been stuffing old clothes ever since.**

Was I just filling space with this nugget of scarecrow trivia? By Priapus, no! Thanks to studying the scarecrow’s past, I now know what to do when Samantha Lee’s effectiveness wanes. I’ll station Angus, who at six has already been noticed by more than one Major League scout, behind Samantha Lee and pay him (probably in discounted candy bars but maybe something more wholesome) to chuck rocks at the birds. A couple of days of both direct hits and near misses and soon enough, those birdbrains will surely associate previously docile Samantha Lee with the relentless attacks. It’s got to work, right?

*I know, I know. Many birds, especially crows and ravens, have keener memories and sharper minds than I. I’ve not only read Bernd Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter, I’ve also spent hours tromping through woods and sitting still to watch various ravens. But when you’re being abused, you tend to overlook such facts and go for the jugular. Thus to me, all birds at this point in time are birdbrains and many, many other unprintable things.

**Other parts of the world have similarly rich scarecrow histories. About.com’s Pagan/Wiccan section has a decent (but short) online rundown of all things scarecrow.