Wild Turkey

Wild Turkeys are resident breeding birds at Chert Hollow Farm. Observations are somewhat erratic. Sightings are most routine in March, April, and November. Summer months are hit or miss, and deep winter months include the fewest sightings. The regularity of summer sightings in a given year seems to relate to breeding success and foraging opportunities, as well as some degree of observational luck.

Trail cameras are good at documenting turkeys and reduce the observational luck (though we don’t always have trail cameras running year round). This is a trail camera photo from the drought of 2012 (in August, at the pond edge):


We’ve found two nests, in different years and at different locations, but both in the woods not far from our main field. Here’s a photo of one nest:bio_wild_turkey_nest

Eric took this photo of a mother hen who was circling an area near the house, distressed because one of her poults had gotten trapped in an open crate.

bio_wild_turkey_henDuring fall months, we generally see sign of Wild Turkeys more often than we see the birds themselves. A collection of bare-ground patches, roughly the size of dinner plates, is a good indicator that a flock of turkeys has been foraging.


We generally enjoy having turkeys around, but they can at times be responsible for crop damage, usually minor in our experience. We’ve documented minor sweet corn damage from Wild Turkeys, and we’ve also seen them eating freshly planted cover crop seed (rye/vetch) in the fall. One year, we planted some wheat that we intended to feed to the chickens; we didn’t get to the work of harvesting it in a timely fashion. In the end, we left it as a food plot for a family of Wild Turkeys that we were able to observe routinely that year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are common permanent residents at Chert Hollow Farm. In four years of regular record keeping, not a single month has passed without seeing one (as of Dec. 2014).


This adult female Red-bellied Woodpecker has been a regular visitor to our bird feeder, and Eric photographed her in that context. Females have red only on the nape; males have red that extends onto the top of the head. The red belly tends to be subtle, and is not visible in this photo.

We learned in the summer of 2015 that Red-bellied Woodpeckers can eat lots of fruit, including apples and tomatoes, as described in this blog post.

Cross-Striped Cabbage Worm

bio_cross-striped_cabbage_wormThe Cross-Striped Cabbage Worm is a pest of brassicas, especially cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. We do see season-to-season and year-to-year variations in the total population size, as well as the population ratio between these and other cabbage worms (such as the Imported Cabbageworm). More often than not, the Cross-Striped Cabbage Worms are the most prolific here.

These caterpillars can quickly defoliate brassica plants, such as the Brussels Sprout plant shown below.

We use several strategies to try to keep damage within acceptable levels. We’ve had some success using shade cloth on hoops over fall cabbage beds to exclude adult moths and prevent them from laying eggs on the plants. Trap crops of collard plants, which are a favored food, can sometimes help, if we keep on top of controlling the populations on the collards plants. bio_cross-striped_damage_br_sproutsWhen preventative methods fail, we’ll resort to “digital control”, that is, using our fingers (digits) to squish the caterpillars. Repeated periodically with attention to life cycle timing, this can be a relatively effective method (though one that is unpopular among workers).

Though it is allowed for organic production, we have never resorted to spraying Bt (a bacterium that kills cabbage worms). We are even less likely to do so since discovering in 2013 that we also have a parasitoid wasp of the genus Cotesia that eats out the innards of some of the cabbage worm species. As usual, any pesticide, no matter how benign and targeted, has unintended ecosystem consequences, and we prefer methods that keep the beneficials (such as parasitoid wasps) working for us.

Squash Bug

Squash bugs are one of our more problematic pests of cucurbits, particularly summer and winter squash and (usually to a lesser extent) cucumbers. Damage occurs from direct feeding injury, and in addition, squash bugs can serve as a vector for plant disease. Squash plants often decline rapidly when squash bug populations boom.

This is an adult:

Females lay clusters of eggs on plant leaves, usually on the cucurbit plants where the young will feed. Very recently laid eggs tend to be pale in color, such as these:

Eggs turn to a darker shade of red/brown as they get closer to hatching. Most of the time, eggs are laid on the underside of leaves, as shown here:But sometimes eggs are on the upper leaf surfaces, as shown below on a large squash leaf, which provides a sense of scale. Learning to spot the eggs is useful, because physical removal of the eggs is one of our preferred control options to keep population numbers in check. Eggs are vulnerable because they’re not mobile, and we can systematically work our way through a squash planting looking for and squashing the eggs. Eggs take 10 days +/- to hatch (depending on what source you believe; we don’t have our own data for this).

Here are some nymphs that have just hatched:

After a molt, nymph coloration changes to grey, and several more molts take place before adulthood.

Then as adults, the whole cycle begins again:

During the growing season, we most often find adults hanging out along the base of the main stem of the squash plant, close to where the stem emerges from the ground. Another favorite hideout is on the underside of large squash leaves that are touching the ground. When searching for eggs, we also seek out adults & nymphs and squish those, too. The smell of a squished squash bug is rather unpleasant.

During the winter, we’ve found adults taking shelter in weed piles and straw bales, often in the vicinity of the late summer squash planting.

Toads are confirmed predators of squash bugs. In late summer of 2012, I watched an American toad eat an adult squash bug. The squash bug virtually crawled across the toad’s nose. The toad seemed to wait for just the right moment, then, gulp, it was gone. Hooray for toads.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed deer are common, though not always commonly seen. This fellow posed  for our trail camera at the one remaining watering hole in the stream during July 2012, in the middle of an extreme drought.

We put much effort into fencing to keep deer out of produce-growing areas. We also make use of hunting season to try to slightly reduce population numbers while boosting our meat supply, in effect replacing the natural predators now displaced by humans.

Tobacco Hornworm

Hornworms of the genus Manduca can be a major pest of tomato plants. Contrary to the claims of this Mother Earth News letter, hornworms can and do eat the fruit of tomato plants. Our hornworm population was happy to provide photographic opportunities to set the record straight, as we did here.

The species shown here is Manduca sexta, which (according to reference books) goes by the common name of Tobacco Hornworm, even though this is the species that we invariably find on our tomato plants. (This is confirmed in David L. Wagner’s excellent book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America.)

To minimize hornworm damage, we pick them off by hand and smush them with a boot. The trails of droppings are often the first sign that these well camouflaged moth larvae are present.

The photo below shows what hornworms are capable of doing to a tomato planting if populations are left uncontrolled. We didn’t check on this planting for about a week and a half before taking this photo (due to family visits, the fact that this is a winter-keeping variety of tomato that doesn’t need to be harvested until later in the fall, and the slightly out-of-the-way placement of the planting since it was being isolated for seed saving).

In early fall 2013, I “adopted” a Tobacco Hornworm so I could watch its life stages. Having to feed it indoors gave me even more appreciation of just how much one can eat! In October, it formed its pupa:


I kept the pupa in a pot of soil indoors over the winter. In April or May, I unearthed it to check on it. Twitching of the pupa upon contact convinced me it was still alive. I kept an eye on it, and in the days prior to emergence of the adult, the color noticeably darkened and shriveled slightly. This photo was taken on the morning of emergence (on May 27):


It emerged sometime that afternoon, but I missed the actual event.


Here’s the recently emerged adult:

bio_Carolina_sphinx bio_adult_sphinx

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Rabbits deserve their reputation as enemies of vegetable growers.

We’ve seen populations vary over time at Chert Hollow Farm. They were minimally problematic during our first few years (to the extent that we didn’t even list them with other pesky mammals on our first organic certification form). But there was a population explosion during the summer of 2011. The 2011 spring peas grew with no protection from rabbits and an early summer edamame planting was fine, but they devoured late edamame plantings several times over and barely minded an electric line that we put up around the plantings for protection.

Here’s a baby:bio_rabbit_baby

Populations boomed in spring 2014, with a rabbit even coming into the greenhouse to nibble on plants. We accidentally discovered a relatively effective trap bait to catch rabbits: sweet potatoes. (Some roots that had failed to produce slips were sitting on the patio, where a rabbit came to gnaw on them, thus the idea.)


Rabbits do provide food to keep the local predator populations happy. That’s almost certainly a rabbit in the mouth of a coyote in this nighttime trail cam photo: