A Public Apology to the Opposum

So…. ummm… how’s it going? [Hides metaphorical tail between legs.] Right. So turns out it most likely, for sure, probably, maybe wasn’t you doing all that horrible damage to the tomato plants, basil, nasturtiums, pansies, tansy, succulents, etc a few weeks back. Turns out I maybe, sort-of, possibly, most likely made a little tiny mistake and accused the wrong critter visitor. This is not to say you’re all 100% innocent of plant theft or anything just that you probably aren’t responsible for 95% of the damage incurred and that if our dispute were to have gone to court and Matlock was your lawyer there would be that part at the end where he turns off the bumbling southern gent in a grey suit act and turns on the cut-throat killer lawyer in a grey suit realness and manages to smart-talk the REAL culprit to confess his crime in the court room and I’d look like a fool for publicly blaming you for all that damage. Which I did. Which was wrong of me.

Which is not to say that I didn’t make a reasonable mistake and that any other ‘possum might not be responsible for such acts of wanton plant destruction but that you specifically are not the culprit. You are a mostly innocent ‘possum who took a public stoning of which I am responsible for acts you mostly, probably, sort-of didn’t commit.

Please accept my humble apology.

So just who was responsible for the carnage and mayhem we experienced on the rooftop garden over those few weeks? Turns out it was most probably a male starling. Yes. That’s right. A bird! A smallish bird took the tops off of nice-sized tomato plants. A smallish bird vanished entire plants from their pots. A smallish bird had me tearing my hair out searching out ways to protect my helpless seedlings. A smallish bird is responsible for all of that destruction!

We should have been thinking about the bird way back in early spring when Davin first caught a male starling snipping flowers from some of the planter boxes. Of course, a small flower is not in the same league as an entire tomato plant ripped right out of the pot. It did not occur to either of us that a smallish bird could have the strength to achieve such a feat let alone the interest to do so. We started to hit onto the bird possibility when I found that plants inside my crazy chicken-wire cage contraption were still disappearing, yet the cage remained untouched. No ‘possum is nimble enough to get inside that thing without causing any damage but an agile bird could fly in and out through the top without leaving a trace.

At about the same time Davin caught this same starling attempting to fly up to the nest with a large artemisia root ball that I had dug out and tossed away earlier that week. The bird was able to get a mangled, dried-up root well over double its size up onto the top roof of our building! That’s kind of amazing when you think about it. I don’t know whether to applaud the starling or stay really pissed at it over my dead plants. In doing some research Davin discovered that starlings put all kinds of plant matter, both dry and fresh, into their nests for a few possible reasons. The thought is that they are either choosing very specific plants that are resistant to the mites that plague them, or as a way to cool down the nest. This makes a lot of sense when I think about it because many of the plants that were stolen were very strong-smelling plants or powerful herbs. No other critter visitor had ever been interested in eating these plants! And at the same time delicious, ripe strawberry bounty (a typical bird delight) remained intact and untouched.

The gutters lining our roof were replaced a few weeks toward the end of winter. We’ve had starlings nesting up there for years with no trouble at all so we’ve hypothesized that perhaps their nest was damaged in the replacement creating a need for lots of new and old plant material to bring the nest back up to code so-to-speak.

Thankfully things seem to be settled down now. I replaced my crappy-yet-effective chair contraption with a wooden kiddie safety gate garbage picked from a “fancy” neighborhood. We have not seen the ‘possum in weeks. The birds seem to be settled into their nests and plant theft seems to have hit a complete standstill. Many of the plants that were not entirely removed from their pots are starting to come back to life and have mostly surpassed their original size save some basil that was picked clean pretty late in the game and an indeterminate tomato that lost its main stem. This plant will be a whole new and unexpected experiment to add to my list of experiments for the 2007 growing season. How does a tomato grow when the main stem is completely severed from the plant? The parts that are now forming the top portion of the plant are essentially “suckers” that are usually removed. If my tomato doesn’t produce a good bounty this fall I’ll be looking at you male starling. Looking at you very sternly. And with some possible aggressive finger wagging.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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12 thoughts on “A Public Apology to the Opposum

  1. I’m glad that you are able to have a good sense of humour about things… I’ll keep it in mind next time my dog lays on my petunias or knocks over my potted plants with his wagging tail :)

  2. I’m glad you figured out who the real culprit was, you guys are great detectives. Now you can properly defend what’s yours!

    I just want to say I love your site! You’ve inspired me to give growing herbs a second attempt. Well, that and we are having a basil shortage in my area! I tried a few months ago and it didn’t go so well but this time I swear to pay attention to them. So far so good, my basil, thyme & oregano recently sprouted, woohoo!

  3. Ugh! Starlings!
    I hate those little bastards! Since they are an introduced pest species you can shoot them, and don’t think I haven’t considered it a couple of times…

    They also like to pull up roofing and siding, and have done about $500 worth of damage to my house over the years.

  4. Wow, thank you for such a good lead! Maybe it’s not a deer, and the bunnies are too short.

    We have a starling nest under a gutter of our roof, and we also have had the heads of several of our tomato plants and sunflower plants chopped off clean. The tomatoes are growing back strong, and even the sunflower left with only one leaf has now popped back with a healthy set of leaves. I hope I’ll be able to say the same for the sunflowers left with zero leaves, but at least now I know which animal we’re most likely dealing with.

    Our philosophy with animals in the garden is pretty positive. Did the tomatoes benefit, in any way, from a hefty snip? They and the sunflower do look healthy again. It IS inspirational how the plants keep growing after such an attack… I hope your tomatoes produce bountifully! :)

  5. I really like starlings. They’re fascinating birds. I would never kill them or chase them away. We look forward to the nesting birds every year.

    It’s more a matter of just finding ways to inhabit the same space. We didn’t know they were the culprit so I didn’t do anything to distract them. Next year I will be prepared for them.

    Aireen: They gave my lemon verbena the pruning I should have and the plant is better for it.

  6. That’s great about the lemon verbena, Gayla. I wonder if a savvy gardener could train starlings to prune only the plants that need it. :)

    If anyone’s interested, we have a post on our blog The Hot Potato about working with animals in the garden. The post is called “Bug Off? Nonviolent Conflict Resolution In The Garden.”

    You can read it and see photos here:

  7. I have the same issue with starlings however with the added annoyance of bunnies. Greatfully the starlings have finished their nests, however the tiny bunny, that was very adorable while making short work of my edibles, had a more tragic ending. I’m not really sure what caught it last week, but there was a patch bunny fur between my parsley and tomatoes! Since then everything has grown back nicely. I have to admit, I don’t feel terribly sorry for the bunny…maybe only a little.

  8. The starlings nest in our eaves, too, and are a bit destructive from that perspective.
    One day last winter my husband came home to a starling perched on the kitchen faucet, and on quite a few mornings this spring one was fervently trying to get into our dryer through the vent (which is now inaccessible – hard cooked eggs and fiery nest would be a bad thing in one’s dryer vent).

    They like to steal from the compost heap to feather their nests. I have experienced random plant issues in the garden, including missing tomato tops, so I can feel your pain. I usually try to blame something else, myself. It could have been a cutworm on some of the shorter plants… For the most part though I don’t mind them, because they’re interesting to listen to, and they do eat a lot of bugs. One of “our” starlings does the best wind chime impression I’ve heard! Still, I’m counting the days until we can repair the wood trim on our house.

    Next year I will invest in some bird scare flash tape for the tomato area, to prevent this sort of thing.

  9. Daria: Love your wind chime mimic starling. Makes me want to install windchimes to see what happens. Our starlings don’t seem to mimic anything but at the community garden we have a mockingbird that copies the calls of just about every other local bird including the kestrals (small bird of prey).

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