Inflatable Flailing Arm Tube Men Double as Scarecrows

Researchers are studying how well the tube men repel birds from fruit crops.

Dec. 5, 2013— -- While they're usually used to promote car dealerships in the suburbs, the inflatable flailing arm tube men, also known as air dancers, have found work in the country. The 20-foot tall dolls have been put to work as scarecrows in New York's orchards and vineyards.

Paul Curtis, associate professor of natural resources at Cornell University, which is behind the air dancer project, said that losing fruit to birds was a big problem in the United States, costing farmers hundreds of millions of dollars. "There are lots of different techniques to scare them off, such as fake hawk models and firecracker-like devices, but most of them are not effective," he told ABC News. "The birds usually realize that they aren't in any real danger."

One method, however, caught Curtis' eye. An inflatable scarecrow, appropriately called Scarey Man, kept birds from snacking at the fish farms in Mississippi. "We saw similar floating devices at car dealerships," he said. "Why wouldn't this work for fruit crops?"

Even though they stand well above the tree canopies and trellises of the local farms and vineyards, the gigantic flexible dolls don't need that much space. "We were pretty careful where we placed them," said Heidi Henrichs, one of Curtis' graduate students. "But they didn't get caught in anything. Unless there are really high winds, they don't bend over too much."

Curtis said this method of keeping the birds at bay cost less than others. "For areas that are close to barns or tasting facilities, they just need an extension cord," he said. "For some of the more remote fields, it just needs a portable generator whose gas tank needs to be filled just once a day."

Both Curtis and Henrichs are collecting data to see how effective their fruit protection method is compared with others. "Right now, we're still just looking at the data," said Henrichs. Curtis said the initial results were encouraging.

It may seem off-putting to walk through bucolic vineyards and farmlands and see a fluorescent-colored bendable doll in the distance. But Henrichs said that both farmers and tourists seemed to love the inflatable scarecrows from day one.

"One of the vineyards loved it so much that they had a naming contest with a free bottle of wine as the prize," she said. The winning name was Mr. Pinot.