Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Who ate my lettuce?: A Caterpickles Investigative Report, Conclusion

squirrel lying on top of a fence

Photo: Michael 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.

Lettuce in a container garden, 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.

Wanted poster showing four suspects: A Pocket Gopher named Bardo Field, AKA Professor Grumpy; a Lesser Goldfinch named Speckles Madison, AKA Inspector Finch; a rabbit named Elvis Hoppy-Pants III, AKA Colonel Cottontail; and a squirrel named Nutsy McGee, AKA Agent Fussy. The words Suspected Associate have been stamped over the gopher's photo; "potential accomplice" over the finch's photo, and "guilty" over the rabbit's photo. The title of the poster says "Wanted for lettuce pilfering". At the bottom is a message urging readers to report any sightings to the Caterpickles Garden Authority immediately at
(Photos: Michael and The Thirteen-Year-Old Howell. Wanted Poster: Shala Howell)

In previous posts, we assessed what role, if any the Lesser Goldfinch, the Pocket Gopher, and the Brush Rabbit 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, Lesser Goldfinch have superior mimicking and flocking skills, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have told other critters in the neighborhood who are fond of lettuce about the lettuce buffet waiting for them in my garden.

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.

The Brush Rabbit: Colonel Cottontail had the opportunity, the motive, and may have had the means to do the crime. However, the forensic evidence (the nature of the damage to the lettuce leaves themselves) wasn’t as clear-cut as I’d like. If he played a part, he didn’t act alone. A much messier eater was also involved.

Which brings us to today’s alleged perpetrator…

The Squirrel: Nutsy McGee, AKA Agent Fussy

Mock-up of a suspect profile for Nutsy McGee, AKA Agent Fussy from the Caterpickles Garden Authority. The profile tells us that Nutsy is a western grey squirrel, 7 years old max, marital status unknown, with one or more litters of 3-5 kids each, fluent in barking, chattering, and tail talk. Special talents include foraging, food storage and transportation, digging, gnawing, and climbing.
Suspect Profile for Nutsy McGee, AKA Agent Fussy. (Source for the details in the profile: Bay Nature and the Western Gray Squirrel Profile on Suspect Photo: Michael Howell. Suspect Profile: Shala Howell)

I’m just going to say it flat out. I’m pretty convinced Nutsy is the leader of our Lettuce-Pilfering Criminal Syndicate. Still, he deserves a fair trial so let’s examine the evidence.

Can we place Nutsy at the scene of the crime?

Nutsy and his squirrel buddies have been all over our backyard lately. There’s always at least one squirrel out there, taunting the cat through our windows, launching pine cones from the treetops, grabbing a tasty snack from our bird feeder, and fighting over who gets the prime seating on our fence.

Did Nutsy have motive to eat the lettuce?

Squirrels are notorious for eating things not meant for them — birdseed, tomatoes, herbs, flowers, cat food, garbage, electrical wire. Sure, Nutsy prefers to eat pine nuts, acorns, and those truffle-like fungi that grow underground at the base of trees. But it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine Nutsy snacking on my lettuce patch.

From Nutsy’s point of view, my lettuce was probably one of the more appropriate foods available to him in my back yard. Especially since he’s already eaten up all the birdseed.

Did he have the opportunity?

Absolutely. We are in and out of the backyard all day, but Nutsy doesn’t care. Having someone to aim those enormous Coulter pine cones at makes life more fun.

Did he have the means?

My containers have 12 inch high walls and are stationed on a 20 inch high platform. This poses no obstacle for Nutsy. He’s a world-famous climber. The key point for him is that those plants are uncovered.

So did he do it?

To figure out whether or not Nutsy actually did it, we have to look at the physical evidence: the plants themselves.

Some of the chomps are neat, a few of the plants are completely eaten down to the stalks, and one plant disappeared entirely overnight. I still think Colonel Cottontail could be to blame for those.

But other plants, like this one, are only half-eaten. The leaves on those plants look more raggedy than clipped. That looks like Nutsy’s work to me. He’s notorious for only eating part of his dinner.

Lettuce in a container garden, eaten down to the stalk.
(Photo: Shala Howell)

In researching the dining preferences of squirrels, I’ve learned that squirrels love digging in containers, and are especially fond of digging up young plants so that they can bury their nuts there instead. I deposed of the evidence before I realized what I was looking at, but there was at least one poor little yellow plant that had been uprooted and left to wilt next to a freshly dug little round hole. Classic Nutsy.

The weight of the evidence certainly points to Nutsy’s heavy involvement, with a possible assist from Colonel Cottontail. But the real reason I suspect Nutsy is this: Over Memorial Day weekend, Michael caught him lying flat on his stomach on our fence.

At first we thought he had a tummy ache from eating all our lettuce, and needed a little rest. But further research revealed that squirrels also lie down like this when they’re trying to hide.

A grey squirrel resting flat on his stomach on top of a wooden fence.
Nutsy McGee (AKA Agent Fussy) hiding like a preschooler after his latest lettuce binge. (Photo: Michael Howell)

That squirrel may think he’s hiding, but I’ve got news for you, buddy. I can still see you, and I know what you did this summer.

So whodunnit?

The previous wanted poster has been updated so that the words "also guilty" now appear on the photo of the squirrel, Nutsy McGee, AKA Agent Fussy.
(Photos: Michael and The Thirteen-Year-Old Howell. Wanted Poster: Shala Howell)

The squirrel and the rabbit at midnight, with possible assists from a chatty Lesser Goldfinch and a conveniently blind and mute pocket gopher.

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