Scarecrow genealogy is rooted in a rural life style. The Egyptians used the first scarecrows in recorded history to use to protect wheat fields along the Nile River from flocks of quail. Egyptian farmers installed wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets. Then they hid in the fields, scared the quail into the nets and took them home to eat for dinner.
Greek farmers in 2,500 B.C. carved wooden scarecrows to look like Priapus, the son of the god Dionysus and the goddess Aphrodite, who supposedly was ugly enough to scare birds away from the vineyards and ensure good harvests. They painted their wooden scarecrows purple and put a club in one hand to scare away the birds and a sickle in the other for a good harvest.
The Romans copied the Greek scarecrow custom and when Roman armies marched through the Europe they introduced Priapus scarecrows to the people there. Almost simultaneously with the Greeks and Romans, Japanese farmers made scarecrows to protect their rice fields. They made scarecrows called kakashis, shaped like people. They dressed the kakashis in a raincoat and a round straw hat and often added bows and arrows to make them look more threatening. Kojiki, the oldest surviving Japanese book compiled in the year 712, features a scarecrow known as Kuebiko who appears as a deity who can’t walk yet knows everything about the world..
In Germany, scarecrows were wooden and shaped to look like witches. Witch scarecrows were supposed to hasten the coming of spring. In medieval Britain, young boys and girls were used as live scarecrows or “bird scarers.” They would patrol the fields of crops and scare away birds by waving their arms or throwing stones. In later times, farmers stuffed sacks of straw, made faces of gourds, and leaned the straw man against pole to scare away birds.
In the United States, immigrant German farmers made human looking scarecrows called “bootzamon,” which later changed to bogeyman. They were dressed in old clothes with a large red handkerchief around their necks.
Native American tribes across North America used scarecrows or bird scarers, mostly adult men. In Georgia, Creek Indian families moved into huts in their corn fields to protect their crops during the growing season. In the Southwest, Zuni children had contests to see who could make the scariest scarecrow.
Pilgrim families took turns guarding their fields against birds and animals, but as Americans expanded west they invented new kinds of nonhuman scarecrows like wooden and straw figures. During the Great Depression, scarecrows could be found all across America, but in the agri-business era after World War II, farmers sprayed or dusted their crops with chemicals like DDT until scientists discovered their harmful effects. To substitute for chemicals, some farmers built scarecrows like whirligigs that revolved like windmills to scare away the birds.