#bioPGH Blog: Scarecrows and Wildlife
Oct 28

#bioPGH Blog: Scarecrows and Wildlife

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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The puppy froze in his tracks — what was that thing? It was shaped like a human, but it wasn’t quite right. The face was made of burlap (not that a puppy would know) and the eyes, ears, and cheery mouth were sewn on in different colors. The thing had arms like a human, but they waved haphazardly in the twilight breeze. The thing was dressed like a human, with a flannel shirt, denim pants, and even a hat; but where humans normally have hair, this had long thin, yellow leafy stuff peeping out from under the hat. The puppy’s little baby hackles went up at the spooky sight — what was this thing in front of the neighbor’s house? Surrounded by happily carved pumpkins and a waving banner with greetings and leaves? Clearly that thing is…trouble!

Don’t worry, puppy; it’s just a scarecrow! When I thought about it, though, how my puppy responded to a seasonally decorative item is probably how most farmers hope that snack-seeking wildlife will respond to the presence of real scarecrows in agricultural fields. I associate scarecrows with fall décor so much that sometimes I take for granted that most of my food at some point would have needed a scarecrow or some other pest deterrent to keep wildlife away from crops or livestock. And real scarecrows, whether straw-filled humanoids or modern electronic devices that strobe or play sounds, are an important tool in a major conservation situation. Let’s look into that!

If we take a step back, the scientific term for the situation that scarecrows are meant to address is human-wildlife conflict. This term includes any sort of interaction with a negative outcome for either the wildlife or human, ranging from property damage or loss to injury or even fatality. Human-wildlife conflict includes wildlife sneaking onto farmlands to eat crops or livestock, it can include deer running in front of your car as you drive, Yellowstone tourists venturing too close to bison, or bears coming up to your tent while camping. Essentially, any form of conflict between humans and wildlife. And as human populations rise and our cities sprawl, this conflict becomes more common. After climate change and habitat loss/fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict is one of the biggest conservation threats to wildlife. It's also the most complicated one because of the direct impacts to life and livelihood.

While the ways of avoiding conflict with wildlife vary by species and situation, there are some things we can do to live safely with our wild neighbors. The first thing is to think of wildlife as neighbors — which I will fully admit can be tricky. It’s hard to think of a predator as a neighbor when we have to actively defend our pets or livestock, but we also have to consider the alternative of no predators or no pests. Predators, for example, keep herbivore populations in check, which reduces disease and habitat destruction from overpopulation. Thus, we need both carnivores and herbivores if we want a healthy, functioning ecosytem (which we humans need all around us for our own survival and benefit.) In more concrete terms, though, here are some things we all can do to minimize human-wildlife conflict in our own neighborhoods.

Drive Safely During the Rut
For the greater Pittsburgh area, deer are among the most common species we encounter, and we have entered the rutting season, when males tend to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of females. This time of year in particular, be sure to drive with caution at dusk and twilight, when deer are most active.

Physical Deterrents
“We found that active guarding, fencing, repellents, and socioeconomic mechanisms consistently led to cobenefits across species and contexts,” Killian, Gomez, and Carter noted in their 2020 paper. There isn’t really a single deterrent that keeps wildlife out of a garden, a yard, or away from a road — animals will habituate to the presence of scarecrows, strobe lights, and even motion-activated sounds. However, alternating methods of deterrent, alongside physical barriers like fencing, can help manage wildlife encounters.

Working Relationships Between Agriculture and Game Managers
If honesty is the “best policy,” then to take it a step further, as “openness and honesty” can truly help authentic communication. Carnivore biologists and game managers out West have learned to build relationships with ranchers to work with them and communicate openly. Afterall, we all want the same thing: safe livestock and a healthy ecosystem. We need transparent relationships and authentic communication for both.

Keep Pets Indoors or Monitored When Outdoors
Allegheny County does have a robust coyote population, and while we are unlikely to see them on a regular basis, we can still be sure we are keeping our pets indoors or supervised. Safety is a bonus as outdoor cats can be problematic to wildlife on their own!

Thinking of Ways to Work with the Natural World Rather Than Against It
As a non-farmer, I want to be very cognizant of the fact that I am discussing this topic as someone who does not depend on livestock or a crop field to put food on the table or support a family. That being said, I am very interested in regenerative agriculture — methods that are meant to work with and complement land and habitats rather than work against it. A number of regenerative farmers have shared their insights on non-lethal anti-predator strategies, from guardian dogs to mixed species grazing to fladry and Van Halen (yup, that Van Halen; apparently wolves aren’t fans.)

In the end, it’s funny what a long thought process was sparked by a brief encounter with a decorative scarecrow, but it’s also a good reminder that as much as we may think of our human selves as separate from nature, we are really just extended residents of the wild world. And we have to plan around that just as much as we have to plan a route to the grocery store. So let’s hear for our collective neighborhood: Earth!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: Scarecrows or not, our area is in peak or just barely passed peak – be sure to get outside and enjoy some leaves this Spooky Weekend!

Images: Public domain