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Posts Tagged ‘tomato hornworm’

What’s Eating What’s Eating my Tomato (or Pepper) Plants?

Shooting obliquely through a window at dusk and zoomed to the max, I captured some poor-quality photos of this cardinal after it plucked a hornworm from my tomato plants. While the image is sketchy, there’s no mistaking the shape and color of the delicacy in the cardinal’s beak.

Birds seem to love my small kitchen garden, so I’m rarely surprised to see some flitting about when I glance out the window. Sometimes I look up while working in the vegetable bed and there’s a catbird or goldfinch poking about within 15 feet of me.

This year, for the first time, I noticed a cardinal showing great interest in my plantings. Oddly, during dinner one evening, a cardinal alighted in our lilac bush and then made its way cautiously onto our deck. There, about eight feet from our dinner table, it snooped around the tomato plants growing in a deck planter. What, I wondered, was so alluring about my tomato plants?

The Cardinal Scores a Hornworm

The next evening, near dusk, I glanced out at the garden and saw the cardinal on the fence near my tomato forest. The cardinal hopped onto the plants out of sight and I watched as the leaves and trellis trembled until the cardinal emerged and landed back on the fence.

The cardinal had something in its beak! What did it grab from my tomato plants? I needed a binocular to answer the question: The cardinal had scored a tomato hornworm! (A link in a tweet from @wormsway since has demonstrated that this was a tobacco hornworm, not a tomato hornworm.) I hadn’t yet spotted any hornworm damage on my tomato plants, but there was the cardinal chowing down.

What an awesome sight! I had no idea cardinals eat hornworms much less that they know to hunt among tomato plants. Goodness, hornworms grow so large, I’d think they could choke a chicken … and a cardinal’s throat must be much smaller than that of a chicken. Hornworms are hard to spot, and you’re not likely to find one until there is tell-tale damage to your plants. I’m so glad to know that at least one cardinal has assumed ownership of hornworms on my tomato plants.

Hornworms on Peppers

The day after the cardinal snagged a hornworm, I noticed one of my sweet pepper plants looked ragged. Rain was falling, and I wanted out of the rain, so yet another day passed before I could examine the plant. The photos tell the story and give you a pretty good idea of why you might want a hornworm-eating cardinal to hang out in your small kitchen garden.

Tomato Hornworm Damage

I noticed that a huge amount of one of my lilac bell pepper plants was missing; clearly the work of a creature that chews on leaves.

Tomato Hornworm Damage to a Pepper

I was suspicious that perhaps a hornworm was involved with my pepper plant; after all, peppers are in the same plant family as tomatoes. Then I saw that someone had eaten a large chunk of one of the peppers! I’d never known a hornworm to eat a tomato; would a hornworm eat a pepper?

Tomato Hornworm Poop on a Pepper

Then I saw the poop pineapples. These are unmistakably output from a tomato hornworm. I promise, if you grow tomatoes insecticide-free for enough years, you will come to recognize hornworm poop. Where oh where was the hornworm? (A tweet I spotted after posting this story pointed out how similar tomato hornworms are to tobacco hornworms. It turns out, this particular hornworm is a tobacco hornworm – apparently, both like plants related to tomatoes.)

Tomato Hornworm Under a Leaf

Knowledge I gained in the past week: It’s a lot easier to spot a hornworm on a pepper plant than it is to spot one on a tomato plant. First, my pepper plants are way smaller than my tomato plants. Second, a hornworm had converted at least a third of this particular pepper plant into hornworm poop so there wasn’t a lot to examine. I got down low, bent a few leaves this way and that, and there was the culprit!

Tomato Hornworm

My very well fed tomato hornworm (actually a tobacco hornworm) was longer and fatter than my index finger. I must have turned a blind eye for my pepper plant to host such a “worm” from cradle to monster (a hornworm isn’t a worm; it’s the caterpillar phase of a hummingbird moth). Woe to the cardinal that tries to gulp down something as big as this. Still, perhaps if I can explain to the cardinal that peppers and tomatoes are in the same plant family, the cardinal will keep my whole garden clear of hornworms.


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