The scarecrow is a fascinating piece of Halloween cornucopia that just does not get the attention it deserves in my opinion. Some of the best scary stories ever told contain themes of this icon of fall. It is about more than scaring a crow but coming to life and behaving like men. Many times their behavior is of an evil or ominous nature.
Wiki tell us that a scarecrow is, traditionally, a human figure (or mannequin) dressed in old clothes and placed in fields by farmers to discourage birds such as crows or sparrows from disturbing and feeding on recently cast seed and growing crops. These can be many different shapes and sizes often having cans, strings or metal wires dangling from them to make extra noise when the winds blow.
The first scarecrows in recorded history were made along the Nile River to protect wheat fields from flocks of quail. 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.
In Medieval Britain scarecrows were actually live boys around 9 years old or older. Known as bird scarers or bird shooers, they patrolled wheat fields carrying bags of stones. If crows or starlings landed in the fields they would chase them off by waving their arms and throwing the stones. When The Great Plague killed almost half the people in Britain 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 that stood against poles.
Native American tribes throughout North America used scarecrows to protect their corn crops. When Europeans began to settle in North America in the 1600s they stood guard in their fields to protect the crops they needed for survival.
By the 1700s, the growing American colonies needed more and more grain and farmers decided that neither farmers nor bird scarers were protecting the crops well enough. Towns all along the Atlantic coast offered bounties for dead crows. So many crows were killed that in the 1800s a new problem arose. Corn borers and other worms and insects which were once eaten by the crows were now destroying more corn and wheat than the crows had. Towns stopped offering bounties and farmers went back to making scarecrows.
Immigrants who moved to the United States during the 1800s brought with them a variety of ideas for making scarecrows. In Pennsylvania, German farmers built human looking scarecrows called a bootzamon or bogeyman. His body was a wooden cross and his head was a broom or mop top or a cloth bundle stuffed with straw. The bootzamon wore old overalls, a long-sleeved shirt or coat, a worn woolen or straw hat, and a large red handkerchief around his neck. Sometimes a second scarecrow was built to keep the bootzamon company. A bootzafrau or bogeywife, dressed in a long dress or coat and wearing a sunbonnet on her head, was placed on the opposite end of the field. The bootzamon and bootzafrau guarded cornfields, strawberry patches, and cherry orchards.
Scarecrows can be both scary and fun, they make an excellent craft project and a super subject for research since their evolution seems intertwined with our own. We are very lucky to have such a great fall icon to delight and spook us.