Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Who ate my lettuce?: A Caterpickles Investigative Report, Part III

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Our story so far…

If you’re just joining us, a crime has been committed in my vegetable garden. Somebody’s been eating my lettuce and it wasn’t me.

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

The Suspects

Each of these suspicious characters was spotted in our backyard by reliable eye witnesses over Memorial Day Weekend.

Image of Wanted Poster which reads: "Wanted for Lettuce Pilfering. Report any sightings to the Caterpickles Garden Authority immediately." It contains four photos: a gopher (stamped Suspected Associate), a Lesser Goldfinch (stamped Potential Accomplice), a rabbit, and a squirrel.
(Photos: Michael and The Thirteen-Year-Old Howell. Wanted Poster: Shala Howell)

In previous posts, we assessed what role, if any the Lesser Goldfinch and the Pocket Gopher might have played.

Our Preliminary Assessments

The Lesser Goldfinch: Inspector Finch had the means and opportunity, but not the motive. When it comes to foliage, Lesser Goldfinch know what they like and what they like are sunflower leaves, not lettuce. That said, goldfinch have superior mimicking and flocking skills, and I wouldn’t put it past Inspector Finch to have notified other critters in the neighborhood who do eat lettuce of a potential feast in my lettuce patch.

The Pocket Gopher: Professor Grumpy had the means, motive, and the opportunity to raid my lettuce patch at night, but the method of the crime doesn’t really fit. My lettuce plants were eaten leaf-down, not roots-up. So while I suspect Professor Grumpy knows more about the crime than he’s telling, I also don’t really think he did it.

Which brings us to today’s alleged perpetrator…

The Rabbit: Elvis Hoppy-Pants III, AKA Colonel Cottontail

Mockup of a suspect profile from the Caterpickles Garden Authority for Elvis Hoppy-Pants III AKA Colonel Cottontail. Profile features a photo of the suspect, along with personal details like species (brush rabbit), age (1? 2? 3 max), marital status unknown, Children (3-4 per litter, up to 6 litters per year), Languages (grunting, honking, and stomping), and specialist fields (hopping, zig-zag escapes, landscape renovations, clean-cut foliage pruning & bark removal, and of course, reproduction).
Suspect Profile for Elvis Hoppy-Pants, AKA Colonel Cottontail (Source for the details in the profile: University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources Rabbit Management page. Suspect Photo: Michael Howell. Suspect Profile: Shala Howell)

Rabbits are notoriously fond of lettuce, especially the dark leafy green kinds I used to have in my garden. I would be amazed if Colonel Cottontail doesn’t come into this nefarious scheme somehow.

Let’s examine the evidence.

Can we place Colonel Cottontail at the scene of the crime?

Sadly, my raised garden is stationed on a concrete slab and it’s been super dry lately so I couldn’t find any rabbit tracks at the actual scene of the crime. But there are plenty of rabbit tracks in other parts of the yard, along with many photographs of him scoping out the view from our back deck.

A rabbit sitting on his back feet half hidden by a potted palm tree.
Colonel Cottontail scoping out the target, or maybe feeling disappointed that the clover in the palm tree pot he ravaged last week hasn’t grown back yet. (Photo: Michael Howell)

Technically, my back deck isn’t the scene of the crime, but it’s within a few hops of it.

Elvis Hoppy-Pants III (AKA Colonel Cottontail) could have done it.

Did Colonel Cottontail have motive to eat the lettuce?

Absolutely. Rabbits love to eat clover, which until last week I had in abundant supply growing around the base of my potted palm tree. Having already ravaged the clover, Colonel Cottontail would have been in the market for some other form of sustenance. Cafe Howell doesn’t stock berries, but we do have cilantro, lettuce, and parsley growing in the container garden. Plenty of food to entice an enterprising young rabbit with a gnawing sensation where his belly should be.

Did he have the opportunity?

Absolutely. We are in and out of the backyard all day, but rarely hang out there at night. Colonel Cottontail prefers to eat at night anyway, so while he may stop by to scope out the place in the daytime, he’s content to wait until Cafe Howell officially opens for the starlight seating.

But did he have the means? Could Colonel Cottontail even reach my container garden?

My containers have 12 inch high walls and are stationed on a 20 inch high platform. At first glance, you’d think those 32 inches would be plenty to make rabbits a non-issue. After all, standard guidance for building rabbit-proof fencing is to install a fence a mere 24 inches high.

Turns out, that when properly motivated by food or predators, rabbits can climb. The catch is, they aren’t especially good at it. Still, rabbits have been known to climb fences, walls, and trees by getting a running start, taking a flying leap, and hoping they land on something that will let them take another jump to get even higher.

Because the platform that supports my container garden is wider than the containers themselves, there’s plenty of space for an enterprising rabbit to land on. Assuming Colonel Cottontail could make that first 20-inch leap (the highest known jump by a rabbit is 39.2 inches), conquering the next stage would be child’s play.

So did he do it?

To figure out whether or not Colonel Cottontail actually did it, we have to look at the physical evidence.

There are no droppings in my container garden (thank goodness), so we have to examine the leaf remnants themselves.

Photo of the garden in question. Six lettuce plants in various disheveled states. Some are nibbled down to the stalks, others still have half-eaten leaves. Evidence that at least one has been uprooted and carried off.
That open space up there used to have two lettuce plants in it. (Photo: Shala Howell)

While some of the chomps are neat and at least one plant disappeared entirely overnight (one of Colonel Cottontail’s favorite tricks), several of the remaining lettuce leaves look more raggedy than clipped.

Rabbits apparently snip their lettuce leaves so neatly it looks like I did it myself with hand clippers. According to the University of California Agriculture and Pest Management website, when Colonel Cottontail chomps through lettuce, he uses his incisors to make a distinctive 45 degree cut.

Some of the stalks look like they might have been clipped by a rabbit, but those raggedy edges on the leaves of the plant in the lower left hand corner tell a different story. Colonel Cottontail likely played a role in this, but he didn’t act alone. I think we may be facing a highly coordinated Lettuce-Pilfering Criminal Syndicate.

And that brings us to Nutsy McGee

As any self-respecting dog (or puppy-sized cat) can tell you, it always comes down to the squirrel.

Did Nutsy McGee do it? Find out in the final episode of “Who ate my lettuce?”

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