Spring is nigh, and trouble's brewing. I want to plant my seeds, and the birds want to eat them.

Usually, the birds win. They follow me brazenly down the garden rows, pecking like chickens at the newly sown seeds. When I chase a bird, he always returns with a friend.

This is the thanks I get for feeding these critters all winter?

More than seeds, birds adore seedlings. Last spring they picked my peas, uprooting the tiny plants and gobbling them down as if they were bright green worms.

Last week, as I tiptoed outside to plant spinach, I felt the birds watching me from the trees. It was spooky. I felt like Tippi Hedren in that Hitchcock horror film.

The birds are so adept at picking my garden's pocket that I wonder why I bother planting vegetables at all. Maybe I should pour the contents of the seed packets directly into the bird feeder.

Or maybe I should fight back, and build a scarecrow.

Scarecrows have guarded our crops for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans placed menacing wooden statues in their farm fields. The Japanese set fire to scarecrows made of fish bones and oily rags, in hopes of driving birds away.

Indians used other means to deal with these pesky creatures. The Creek Indians chose human scarecrows from within the tribe. It was considered an honor to police the cornfields all summer, scattering wildlife.

The Seneca Indians managed to pit the birds against each other. planting time, the farmers deliberately threw down some seeds soaked in herbal brews. Birds ate these seeds and flew about in a stupor. This frightened other birds and probably saved the crops.

More traditional clothed figures, like the one in "The Wizard of Oz," peppered the fields of American pioneers. The Pennsylvania Dutch called their scarecrows "bootzamon" (boogeymen) and some believed the figures came alive after dark. This terrified the children more than the birds, who rarely entertain at night.

"Scarecrows have been used all over the world by people to protect their food," says Bobi Martin, who relates these tales in her book, "All About Scarecrows" (Tomato Enterprises, P.O. Box 2805, Fairfield, Calif. 94533).

Anyone can make a scarecrow, says Martin. It can be as simple as a stick figure, or as elaborate as the 90-foot English model built in 1989 and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest.

"There is no wrong way to make a scarecrow," she says. "You're limited only by your imagination."

If it frightens birds, it works. And what scares birds? Movement. Noise. Unpredictability.

"I just saw a Vietnamese scarecrow, made of bamboo, and wearing an Asian skirt," says Martin. "Basically, it flapped in the .. breeze -- but that's all you need.

"A good scarecrow will have variable movements that the birds can't memorize. It may be some aluminum pie plates dangling from the figure's arms. Or a child's pinwheel stuck in the scarecrow's hand. Erratic motions really spook the birds."

High-tech scarecrows are now the rage. A Midwestern farmer created a solar-powered, pop-up scarecrow that leaps off the ground, spins in a circle and collapses in a heap. At random intervals, of course. It drives crows crazy.

Scarecrows also have burst onto the folk art scene. Each fall, harvest festivals across America feature scarecrow-making contests. The largest of these is in Vacaville, Calif., where, in a large cornfield, 250 scarecrows of all shapes and sizes vie for a $1,000 prize.

Recent entries included likenesses of Bill Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot, as well as effigies of other famous people: Vincent Van Crogh, Ramcrow, Bruce Scaresteen and Tammy Faye Bakkrow.

My new scarecrow will top them all. To beat the birds, I'll build a fierce-looking, low-browed scarecrow and dedicate it to the world's first gardener -- Crow-Magnon Man.

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