YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Field of Expertise

Scarecrows: Rafael Rodriguez's quirky stick soldiers do more than shoo birds away from strawberries--passersby enjoy them as works of utilitarian art.


IRVINE — Rafael Rodriguez Aranda's creations were born of necessity. Hungry birds were pecking the seeds from strawberries growing in the Pinnacle Farms fields near the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, leaving the berries scarred, pocked and unfit for picking.

So Rodriguez, a field hand, went to work.

Using branches and twigs, plastic scraps and found pieces of clothing, Rodriguez created a small detachment of stick soldiers. With each stir of a breeze, the sentinels flap gently, as though coming to life, a flutter of activity that spooks the marauders into flying off.

Ornate, involved creations, Rodriguez's scarecrows seem disconcertingly real from a distance, which of course is the whole point. As they repel birds, they draw the attention of other creatures--passing motorists, who often crane their necks, seeing in Rodriguez's work something more than a simple farm trick.

"Many people have told me, 'This is a work of art that you're doing,' " Rodriguez, 43, said as he stood at field's edge in the sun of a late spring afternoon. "I see them as something I put out there to do my work. But . . . I can see what they mean. I like them. They please me."

America's transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society to a postindustrial society has never been marked by clear lines. Which may be why Rodriguez's scarecrows, and those that farm workers have created in other fields, can be so appealing. They form a physical link to a fading past, rural icons of a different time in this same place.

"They're fun things, really," said Avon Neal of Brookfield, Mass., whose travels around the world have led to two books about scarecrows, both now out of print. "They're the epitome of a folk art form, because they're made for utilitarian purposes and they become things of beauty, really, within their own provenance."

They are things of tradition as well, even though few scholars have explored the history of scarecrows. The Smithsonian Institution, with its millions of artifacts of American history, does not have any in its collection, other than the suit Ray Bolger wore in "The Wizard of Oz."

Neal suspects that scarecrows gather so little serious interest because they are so pervasive.

"In the U.S., it's a tradition probably brought over from Central Europe," Neal said. "They've been in use since the beginnings of colonial America. . . . It's still a tradition in all the agrarian areas of the world.

"People truly believe that they make a difference and keep the birds away," he said. "My feeling is they're more ornamental."

Paul Gorenzel, a staff research associate in UC Davis' cooperative extension office, has studied various ways of driving birds from fields--including noisemakers, sun-reflecting Mylar tape and propane-fueled cannons.

There is only one sure-fire method: A human presence. Scarecrows might be the next best thing, he said, but they only work temporarily.

"When you put something out there that looks like a person, an animal will be wary of it," Gorenzel said. "They will quickly learn that there's no real harm or danger, and after a while they'll fail to respond."

Rodriguez's faith in scarecrows is less academic. He knows they work because he has seen them work.

"What works best is when the figures have a movable part, like the hands."

He relies on wind for the effect, attaching a glove, for example, so that it will flit in the breeze like the flip of a hand. "That's what scares the birds."

The tricks were learned on the land. Rodriguez was born and raised in Guanajuato, Mexico, a state northwest of Mexico City that he described as similar to south Orange County--steep desert hills giving way to green valleys with fields filled with lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries.

Rodriguez has worked for Pinnacle Farms since 1979, he said. In the past, farm managers used different methods to scare off birds, most recently using farm workers as deterrents, sending them into the fields to shoo away the flocks.

This year, they turned to Rodriguez's art and the occasional crack of a bullwhip. The few times those methods don't work, Rodriguez simply feeds the birds, laying out flats of seeds that draw them away from the berries.

Rodriguez, who builds the scarecrows as part of his regular work in the fields, takes grudging pride in his creations. They are art, he finally agrees, simply because they are what they are.

"Art is something that comes from inside," he said, "and I do feel something for my scarecrows."

Los Angeles Times Articles