Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Who ate my lettuce?: A Caterpickles Investigative Report

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Regular readers know that this year I planted my first vegetable garden. So far, only the lettuce has come up, but I had three glorious harvests of it in April and May. Turns out, I may not enjoy cooking, but I love making salads I grew myself.

That May 6 harvest was so bountiful and so tasty that I rashly began making plans to expand my lettuce empire so that I never needed to buy lettuce from the store (during growing season) again.

Photo shows a colander full of freshly picked lettuce. Mmmmm.... lettuce.
I grew that. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Sadly, that harvest was fated to be my last harvest of the spring, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Somebody’s been eating my lettuce and it wasn’t me

A few days later, I visited my garden to harvest another batch of lettuce and discovered that someone else had gotten there first.

Photo of a lettuce plant eaten down to the stalk in a container garden.
(Photo: Shala Howell)

The lettuce was basically ruined anyway, so I left what remained of it in place as bait to enable me to assemble a Rogues’ Gallery of suspects. Enough of the lettuce grew back by Memorial Day weekend to attract several suspicious characters.

Who ate my lettuce?

Here’s what we know: Each of these nefarious supervillains was spotted in our backyard by reliable eye witnesses over Memorial Day Weekend.

(Photos: Michael and The Thirteen-Year-Old Howell. Wanted Poster: Shala Howell)

Any one of them could have done it. But did they? Over the next few posts, we’ll examine each of the suspects.

Today, we’ll start with The Lesser Goldfinch.

The Lesser Goldfinch: Speckles Madison, AKA Inspector Finch

Image shows a mock-up of a suspect profile from the Caterpickles Garden Authority. Stamped TOP SECRET, the profile features a close-up of a grainy photo of a lesser goldfinch sitting in a sunflower plant, and has a list of personal details (name Speckles Madison, alias Inspector Finch, age (3 years? 6? 11 max), marital status married, children 3-5 per year, gender male; as well as a list of specialist fields: foraging, flocking, mimicking, aphid-catching, and seed-eating
Suspect Profile for Speckles Madison, AKA Inspector Finch. (Source for the details in the profile: The Lesser Goldfinch page on Bird Web. Suspect Photo: Michael Howell. Suspect Profile: Shala Howell)

Did Inspector Finch have the means and the opportunity to do it?

Absolutely. All Inspector Finch had to do was fly over to the lettuce patch and start snacking away. We’re a bird-friendly operation over here, so the most he’d be risking, even in daylight, is a little side-eye from our cat and having Michael take his picture while he’s in midst of committing the crime.

I know this, because this is how we reacted when we caught him eating our sunflower plant.

But did he have the motive?

As far as I know, Lesser Goldfinch mostly eat seeds and small insects. Bird Web, the source of the information for Inspector Finch’s suspect profile, makes no mention of them eating leaves.

So what was he doing pecking at the leaves of my sunflower plant over Memorial Day weekend? And if he’d do something like that, what’s to stop him from eating my lettuce?

Do Lesser Goldfinch eat leaves?

Inspector Finch’s attack on my sunflower plant left sizable holes in several of my sunflower plant’s leaves. But in no case did he eat the entire leaf. At first I assumed that he was eating bugs on the plant and that the leaves themselves were just collateral damage.

Sunflower leaf with holes pecked in it near its stem. Most of the leaf is still there.
Inspector Finch’s work. (Photo: Shala Howell)

But then I stumbled across a blog post asserting that Inspector Finch’s cousin, the American goldfinch, are so notorious for eating lettuce (and other leaves) that the Pennsylvania Dutch nicknamed them salad birds. I would never have believed it, but it did make me wonder if Inspector Finch’s aim all along was a tasty sunflower snack.

Apparently so. According to this article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Lesser Goldfinch will absolutely eat your sunflower plant’s leaves.

If Inspector Finch would do something despicable like that, what’s to keep him from eating my lettuce?

Inclination, apparently. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Lesser Goldfinch don’t share the American Goldfinch’s passion for salad greens in general. They know what they like, and when it comes to foliage, they like sunflower plants.

So is Inspector Finch in the clear?

Not so fast, Caterpickles Investigative Report Readers. Don’t forget Inspector Finch’s facility for mimicking bird calls. He could have easily summoned a flock of his lettuce-loving American Goldfinch cousins to decimate my lettuce patch.

Still, if he had, I think we’d probably have heard it. I mean, a flock of goldfinch wouldn’t have been very stealthy. Also, while they might have been numerous enough and motivated enough to peck the leaves away to the stalk, it doesn’t seem like they’d go to the trouble of ripping out an entire plant and carrying it away.

No, if Inspector Finch and his American Goldfinch cronies were involved, they were just one part of a larger criminal conspiracy.

Which raises the question…

What did Professor Grumpy know and when did he know it?

Tune in next time to find out.

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