Researchers promote sustenance by using iPods as scarecrows

Whitney Allen

WKU researchers have updated the traditional scarecrow into something much more complex and effective. The iPod-powered scarecrow emits smells, sounds and flashing lights.

Biology professor, Michael Stokes, is one of the directors of the scarecrow project.

“We call them scarecrows for lack of a better word (and) also in the literature they’re called radio-activated guards,” Stokes said. “But scarecrows, everybody knows what a scarecrow is.”

In the new version of an old garden tool, an iPod is used to create noises that will scare animals away. After testing multiple possibilities, the sound of pots and pans banging has been particularly effective with African Buffalo.

This research is in part of the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation through their joint program Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD). The focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is sub-Saharan Africa, with the scarecrow project primarily focused in Kenya.

The NSF is looking for new ways to improve sustenance farming — farms that the farmer relies on explicitly to feed his or her family. Researchers want to create stimuli that will keep animals out of the fields as much as possible. African farmers face a variety of animals, from large rodents to elephants and monkeys.

With such a wide variety of species from which to protect the crops, the scarecrows have to be able to emit a variety of sounds and smells.

“Every time it’s triggered you won’t get the same sound,” Stokes said. “That’s where the iPod comes in.” Mark Cambron, an engineering professor, has created the prototypes of the scarecrows alongside several students over the past four years.

“If we do the same thing every single time the idea is that the animal would quickly learn what’s going on and ignore it, so we have several devices that can be triggered by action,” Cambron said.

Some of the smells used are cheetah and leopard urine. The purpose is that animals that fear these predators will be deterred by these particular scents.

Several students have traveled to Kenya to do research for the project. The students use motion sensors and video cameras to monitor the scarecrows, and they keep track of what sounds and smells work and which ones don’t.

Graduate student Adam Emberton worked alongside Professor Cambron in the development of the scarecrow.

“I gained a lot of experience designing electronics, writing software, etc.,” Emberton said. “Of course we do all of that in our classes as engineering students, but this project included a lot of firsts for me, including learning new technologies and techniques.”

Stokes said it was unrealistic to think the scarecrows would just make the animals run off and never return.

“But if we could just reduce the amount they feed by, say, 10 percent, that’s like giving the farmer an extra 10 percent on the crop and that’s huge,” Stokes said.