Unleashing the Scarecrows
Oklahoma grower Seabrook Griffin shares his creative methods to building the perfect scarecrow.
Although there are probably more than forty species of crows, the ones that make life difficult for Oklahoma pecan growers are American Crows, and growers east of the Mississippi may also encounter Fish Crows.
But a crow is a crow as far as I am concerned. The name does not matter as much as the intelligence of these birds. The brain to body weight ratio of corvids is way up there—not too far behind dolphins, humans, and other primates, and is on par with parrots.
In their 2005 book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, from the Yale University Press, John Marzluff and Tony Angell state:
“All corvids have disproportionately large heads accommodating large brains that endow these birds with exceptional memory and intelligence.
Yes, dolphins and people have considerably larger brains relative to their body size than any bird, even the smartest corvid or parrot. But the relative brain size of crows and ravens is more similar to that of mammals, including most primates, than to other birds.
Mentally, crows and ravens are more like flying monkeys than they are like other birds. This means that they are able to learn, remember, and use insight to solve natural and human challenges.“
Researchers in England have documented crows picking up a piece of wire, then bending it into a hook, which the crow then used to retrieve food from a little bucket stuck inside a narrow pipe. They also documented another crow stealing the tool from the first crow, which resulted in the “victim” simply making another tool to take its place.
And a study done back in the 1960s detailed a crow picking up a water dish and walking a distance with the dish in its beak to moisten its food. These types of behaviors show that guarding a pecan crop against these winged beings is tricky.
Pecan growers deal with wildlife depredation on an ongoing basis, and we all have our preferred methods. Hopefully, the sharing of my experience in building scarecrows may prompt ideas of your own.
Crows can be roughly split into two groups: the locals and the out-of-towners. Most deterrent tactics will work against the out-of-town gangs, as they typically fly at high altitudes and have to make quick assumptions about the landscape they are zooming over. Any human shape will tend to keep them flying. But with the local crew, it is a different story altogether.
The local crew, and sometimes neighboring crews, will study the orchards and groves and know the tendencies of the humans who tend to the crows’ nutritional needs by producing a pecan crop.
My house is surrounded on three sides by papershell orchards, and these improved varieties are particularly prized by the crows. They prefer the papershells to the natives because the nuts are bigger and easier to open. But crows will eat any pecan that is ripe. They keep watch over all the orchards and groves and know which trees have nuts that are ready to eat.
Due to the close proximity of the orchards to my house, a sound-broadcasting machine with the cries of dying and tormented crows and critters is not a good option, which leaves me with scarecrows, propane cannons, and walking around the orchards with the shotgun.
So, when the big native tree in the middle of an improved variety orchard started becoming a morning lookout post for the crows, I stationed a scarecrow underneath it. This seemed to work for about a week, and then, the native tree had an early shuck-split, and the crows returned.
This meant that I had to get out in the orchard before sunrise and provide my scarecrow with some 12-gauge back-up. This tactic held up as a deterrent until work responsibilities called me to other parts of the farm, whereupon the rascals would just outwait me and resume their dining.
Following a lucky shot, I managed to shoot a crow, then hung it from the barrel of a scarecrow’s shotgun. This apparently spooked the rest of the crows, as they completely avoided the orchard for the next two weeks. A second crow was bagged, and this one was hung from another scarecrow to a limb on a nearby tree, which gave it a bit of movement in the breeze.
Without a dead crow providing the heebie-jeebies factor, scarecrows are effective for only a short period of time. If you move them around the orchards every day or two, that time-frame can be extended. But if the scarecrows are too heavy, moving them around becomes a chore.
Based on this, the best scarecrows are ones that are lightweight and portable with a low center of gravity to withstand high winds. They should be durable, and cheap (the less money spent on crows the better).
Plastic grocery bags are both lightweight, waterproof, and cheap, and are a handy stuffing material. Squirrel tails work well for hair, beards and mustaches, and are always in ample supply.
Empty bleach bottles are both lightweight and about the same size of a human head.
For the footing base, I typically use a square piece of plywood, 18 to 24 inches to a side.
The pelvis should be notched to hold the spine, giving it extra strength. As you build the skeleton upward, it is best to use lighter materials. This not only makes it easier to move the scarecrow but also gives the unit greater stability by not being top-heavy.
Use smaller dimension wood for the arms & shoulders, and when it finally gets to the forearms, metal springs are handy to help the arms move with the breezes. Hands can be made of old work gloves, and an old pair of shoes works will well for the feet.
The idea is to construct it from the ground up, and dress it as you go. So, once you have the legs in place, put the britches on the old boy and stuff the legs with grocery bags. Then attach the pelvis to the top of the legs.
Scarecrows are more dangerous looking, from the crow’s perspective, if they are armed with something resembling a shotgun, and reflective materials like mylar, and old CDs which are sure to catch a corvid’s eye. In fact, the laser holographic qualities of CDs has a prism effect on reflected sunlight, and sometimes a quick flash of red or yellow approximates the blast from a gun muzzle.
Old car batteries make excellent anchors to weigh the scarecrows down. There is nothing worse than a scarecrow sleeping on the job, and they will look for any excuse to take a nap, like getting blown over. In addition to being good anchors, batteries are also portable.
The heads can be adorned with cheap Halloween masks for the basic face. Old glasses and shades add a touch of realism.
Any pecan grower can tell you that this work is a lot of fun. Scarecrows, in addition to being helpful, can also bring whimsy and humor to the farm. If you are lucky enough to have children running around, they are always enthusiastic about helping build something useful and fun.
Perhaps somebody reading this will figure out an inexpensive way of making the scarecrows move, and then, share that information with us via Pecan South.