The quintessential scarecrow will forever be Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz, escaping the cornfield in a noodle-limbed dance down the Yellow Brick Road. Unfortunately, Bolger's scarecrow not only lacked a brain, he was by his own admission an ineffective bird-deterrent.
"Scarecrows are folk art, really," says art teacher Katie O'Hara, who owns Gardenfolk in Goodyear's Bar -- that's a town, not a watering hole -- in California. O'Hara produces about 100 individualized scarecrows a year, collapsible for shipping, including two made for a titled couple in Buckinghamshire, England. "Mine are more decoration. They don't really scare away crows very well.
"Scarecrows are garden accessories," agrees Felder Rushing, author of Scarecrows and Other Yard Folk (Storey, 2004, $20). "They're whimsical Everyman figures."
Despite their low marks for prevention, the use of scarecrows and other objects to deter foraging birds goes back 2,000 years.
"The Greeks had stone statues," says O'Hara. "One was Priapus, the ugly son of the god Dionysus, that was supposed to scare the birds out of vineyards."
Though the straw stuffed-shirt types are most often associated with harvest time, they are fun summer-long garden companions. Garden writer Rosalind Creasy has an entire scarecrow garden.
In Victorian times, scarecrows were considered art objects and were dressed in secondhand finery -- a temptation to roving beggars. O'Hara uses thrift-shop clothing. She then stuffs and paints the heads, which she models on friends and family to create a variety of characters.
"My favorite one sits in my garden and looks like my husband," she says.
In the late 1800s, Zuni children participated in scarecrow competitions, a practice that continues in suburbia today.
"It can get pretty heavy-duty with thousands of dollars in prize money," says Rushing, an occasional scarecrow contest judge who has wandered the nation photographing scarecrows.
But while many consider scarecrows to be more decorative than practical, Andy Andrews, manager of Colchester Community Sustained Agriculture Project in Georgetown, Kent County, says the 5-acre vegetable garden's two scarecrows help keep a fair portion of the ravenous wildlife away from the project's veggies. At least for a bit.
"The crows figure it out in about two weeks," says Andrews. "It takes the deer and groundhogs and some of the other birds a little longer."
Their diminishing scariness is due in part to their static demeanor. Motion and change are keys to successful scaring.
"We need to go out about a week or 10 days after putting them up and hang empty tuna cans on them," says Andrews.
As with plastic owls and rubber snakes (sold in garden centers), shifting scarecrow locations every week or two also helps. Motion plus shine tend to lengthen the scaring life. Tin pie plates that flutter from lines can wave birds off berries during several weeks of production, but be sure to put them up just before the first berries ripen. I recently saw a spiral-cut compact disc hung like a Christmas ornament to sparkle and flicker over plants. And farmers have used goose boomers, big drums that periodically emit a nerve-shattering sound, among crops. Yet, the canny critters eventually realize the boomers, as with everything else, are all bark and no bite and ignore them.
The best scarecrows
While it's labor-intensive, the most effective scarecrows are humans, which birds realize present a potentially greater threat than inanimate objects.
"In England, some villages have live scarecrows who wander from orchard to orchard with clappers," says Rushing. Of course, one may have to actually attack a bird now and then to maintain respect.
The most effective non-human scarecrow to date is the Scarecrow, a new electric anti-foraging device. Made by Contech Electronics, the motion-triggered gizmo hooks up to the hose. Once it senses movement -- be it deer, bird, family cat or Aunt Maude -- it treats them to a 3-second blast of water. And because the device points and shoots up to 35 feet away, its targets skitter off before they reach the plants. Priced anywhere from $65 to $90 depending on retailer, the Scarecrow has won the National Home Gardening Club Seal of Approval.
While the electronic Scarecrow can actually protect your plants, the traditional scarecrow is a great garden addition too. And making one can be a kid-friendly project. Rushing offers instructions for creating the main cast of The Wizard of Oz, including a Tin Man fashioned from recycled cans.
The simplest structure uses a sturdy support -- wood with a crosspiece for shoulders. The head can be a milk jug. The fabric can be stuffed with anything from straw to old sweat socks or nylon stockings, which would help avoid mildew, endemic in Maryland's humidity.
Internet only. (No catalog or mail order.)
Home Harvest Garden Supply Inc.
3807 Bank St.
Baltimore, MD 21224
Valley View Farms
11035 York Road
Cockeysville, MD 21030
Lee Valley Tools Ltd.
P.O. Box 1780
Ogdensburg, NY 13669-6780
Hemphills Garden Center
2222 Fallston Road
Fallston, MD 21047