The opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is the only native North American marsupial. Marsupials are distinguished by their abdominal pouch used for carrying their young.
An opossum is about the size of a house cat, has coarse grayish fur, a pointed face, and hairless, rounded ears. With its long hairless prehensile tail, the opossum can carry things such as nesting materials and even hang upside down from a tree branch.
Opossums are about 2 to 3 feet long, including the tail, and weigh up to 15 pounds, although most fall within the 4 to 7 pound range. Males are usually larger than females. Their feet resemble small hands with five widely spread fingers. All of the toes have a claw except for the opposable thumb on the rear foot. Opossums are well adapted for climbing. The opposable toe on the hind foot assists in holding on to small branches or similar structures.
BIOLOGY AND BEHAVIOR
While their natural habitats are diverse, ranging from arid to moist and wooded to open fields, opossums prefer environments near streams or wetlands. They take shelter in abandoned burrows of other animals, in tree cavities and brush piles, and beneath other dense cover.
In urban and suburban settings they may den under steps, porches, decks, garden tool sheds, and if accessible, in attics, garages, and beneath houses, where they make an untidy nest of sticks and whatever else may be available. The nest components appear piled together rather than woven or stacked. They have complex but flexible social relationships, with overlapping home ranges that allow high populations to develop when food is plentiful.
A female opossum gives birth to helpless young as tiny as honeybees. Babies immediately crawl into the mother’s pouch, where they continue to develop. As they get larger, they will go in and out of the pouch and sometimes ride on the mother’s back as she hunts for food. Opossums may give birth to as many as 20 babies in a litter, but fewer than half of them survive. Some never even make it as far as the pouch.
Opossums are scavengers, and they often visit human homes or settlements to raid garbage cans, dumpsters, and other containers. They are attracted to carrion and can often be spotted near roadkill. Opossums also eat grass, nuts, and fruit. They will hunt mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and even chickens.
These animals are most famous for “playing possum.” When threatened by dogs, foxes, or bobcats, opossums sometimes flop onto their sides and lie on the ground with their eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. They extend their tongues and generally appear to be dead. This ploy may put a predator off its guard and allow the opossum an opportunity to make its escape.
Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb. Opossums nest in tree holes or in dens made by other animals.
The many tried and tested methods I used to get rid of possums in my backyard
Possums have the cutest, sweetest little marsupial faces you’ve ever seen, and you’re definitely not allowed to smack those sweet little marsupial faces with the back of a shovel – according to the Wildlife Act 1975. So I had to try something less animal-deadly to stop possums from eating my entire backyard.
(And a warning to all possum-repellent sprayers: don’t spray on a windy day. I got tabasco/fish-sauce blow-back and had to flush out my eyes with water, then deodorise with Glade Classic Rose Air-Freshener).
Tried putting a plastic owl statue in the garden to scare the possums away, but that didn’t work either. For some reason they weren’t afraid of an owl that tipped over in a light breeze and had a Bunnings price-sticker on its wing.
Tried putting up possum-guards to stop the possums from climbing my fruit trees. These are thick plastic bands that you wind around the tree so it looks like it’s been gift-wrapped at a Japanese homewares store. But the possums just jumped over from the neighbour’s tree, then enjoyed an all-you-can-eat fruit buffet.
Tried everything. Spiky fence-strips. Extreme branch-pruning. I even tried to buy “fox-urine granules” because that’s also supposed to deter possums, but you can only get it in America (somewhere in Connecticut there must be a factory with thousands of foxes in tiny toilet cubicles, urinating from 9 to 5).
A Possum Crisp and Brown: The Opossum and American Foodways
The poem and the monument highlight a perhaps surprising fact about our old friend the opossum: it has been a significant source of meat for many Americans for a long time. In this post, we’ll take a look at American traditions around hunting, cooking, and eating our only native marsupial.
Although you can find descriptions of opossums being hunted with guns, especially when the hunters were also interested in birds or squirrels, most possum hunters tried to take the animals alive. Opossums are nocturnal, so were generally hunted at night. A group of hunters would typically pursue the possum with dogs.
“Yielding to fate,” in this case, entails what is often called “playing possum,” but what is actually an involuntary reaction of the opossum to stress: the animal rolls over on its back and loses consciousness, very much like fainting. This allows the hunters to throw the comatose opossum in a sack or otherwise confine it, and keep hunting
The image of “treeing” a possum with dogs has become iconic in folksong and folk music as well, with such tunes and songs as “Possum up a Gum Stump” and “Possum up a ‘Simmon Tree” suggesting moments in the hunt.
How to Cook a Possum
The method of catching opossums alive had two main advantages. For one, the live opossum can be saved for a Sunday or other special occasion, or until the proper side dishes can be gathered.
What to do about an opossum in the backyard
What can I do to help this little critter? I’ve put out water in a bowl and am wondering, if it can climb a 6-foot fence to get away from the dog.
Opossums are excellent climbers, so your visitor probably could escape from your dog, but you should keep your dog out of the backyard, or use a leash, until the opossum decides to leave.
If you’re going to have wild animals in your yard, you couldn’t do any better than opossums. They eat a lot of bugs, snails and even rodents, they get along well with cats and they do not vector diseases. Opossums even have a certain immunity to rabies and can usually withstand a rattlesnake bite.
I’d suggest two things. If you’re concerned about the opossum not being able to get out of your yard, then use a humane, live trap to capture it and release it on the other side of the fence. Laws forbid you from taking it to another location, even if that’s just down the street, but you can release it on your own property. Try to find the safest place you can, away from the neighbors’ dogs.
While visiting a dear friend in Walnut Creek, we spotted an all-white squirrel playing in her backyard with several other usual ones. We had never seen one before. How rare is this? Any more information would be appreciated.
They are rare, but we’ve had reports before of white squirrels in Walnut Creek, Concord and other cities. I suspect the squirrel you saw is not albino, but a squirrel with leucism, which is a loss of pigmentation.