Seen Any Opossums Lately?

Never thought to record sightings, so cannot absolutely swear, but I’m pretty sure there are more and more ‘possums in the mid Hudson Valley, and I’m convinced it’s Zone Creep, wild animal division.  The opossum (Didelphis virginiana) has always had a wide range and can occasionally be found as far north as Canada, but the place you find most of them is the South, so if they are becoming common here…

Opossums are nocturnal except when extremely hungry, so most of the ones you see are the ones that have had encounters with cars.  But we’ve surprised them many times on evening trips to the compost. And last week right around teatime there was a good sized one in the bee yard, hoovering up the dead bees that get deposited in front of the hives when it’s warm enough for the survivors to clean house.                                                                                                                                  

Opossum eating cake instead of bees (Bill threw some so it would hold still)

Opossum eating cake instead of bees (Bill threw some so it would hold still)

This daylight encounter prompted a bit of research. Turns out opossums have a LOT of fans ( who knew?).

Google’s first page offers two – can they possibly be competing? – opossum interest groups, The National Opossum Society and The Opossum Society of the United States, each with perhaps more information than you want or need about North America’s only native marsupial.

Short Version:

*  A # 1:  Unless you have laying hens, they’re harmless; leave ‘em alone! They can’t hunt anything bigger than rats – to which they’re not related at all, btw. They’re more resistant to rabies than any other common mammal, wild or domestic. And although they’re fond of fruit  (“ possum in a ‘simmon tree”…) bigger versions of squirrel baffles are usually effective orchard protectors.

* They’re omnivores but seldom damage vegetables because they much prefer bugs, snails and slugs, carrion, meat scraps, rotten fruit, pet food and sweets.

* Very clean. They groom themselves the way cats do.

* Opposable thumbs on the back feet how cool is THAT.

* 50 teeth – But they only bite as a last resort. If threatened and unable to run away (maximum speed @ 7 miles per hour) they hiss and bare the teeth. If that doesn’t work; they pretend to be dead already, i.e. play possum.

 * The male opossum’s we won’t mention it for fear of attracting spam is bifurcated. No lie.

 * The scaly, prehensile tail is unlovely , I admit, but c’mon. Opossums have been around for 70 miliion years and while they’re not as cute as koalas they’re a lot better than kangaroos.

(Department of further explanation: The brown sticks in the picture are grapevines; the hives are under the arbor. The wire is part of the electric fence Bill put up after the bears started coming around.)

Photo by Bill Bakaitis



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  • Bill Said,

    Well, there is one very interesting addition I must make.

    This particular ‘possum harvested his (or her) own ‘dead’ bees by reaching into the hive to arouse the guard bees, and then, when they came out, stung and died (or simply succumbed to the cold and died) they were eaten.

    This is apparently very similar to the way skunks do at night, but I have never seen ‘possums do it.

    I rushed out and threw it the sweet cake (which we were having for afternoon tea) in order to call off its raid on our hive which is particularly weak at this time of year. It was a hungry little sucker though and a subsequent slice of bread was necessary to convince it to move off into the security of our hemlock hedge and abandon its well executed raid. There were hundreds of newly dead bees in the snow following its raid.

    Leslie’s reference to their cleanliness prompts me to recall the story of the ‘possum who found my deer lure scent stick one afternoon several autumns ago. I was in the tree above and watched as this cute little fella (or gal) picked up the scented twig and proceeeded to groom itself with it, combing it through its fur as if it were preparing for a great night out! It spent perhaps four or five minutes rubbing itself all over, and then with the last dab behind the ears trotted off down the path i was watching.

    I agree with Leslie that they seem to be more common ‘up north’ than they were when I was a kid. There must be records kept by fur dealers which would yield very accurate records of range and range extension. Farmboys and professional fur trappers alike can attest to the fact that ‘possums are probably the most easily taken of all our wild fur bearers. If they are around, they will wander into a trap quicker than a ‘coon, skunk, fox, mink or coyote.

    Of course, now that I think of it, ‘possoms may be more common now because farm boys and fur trappers are disappearing, our farms and forests replaced by suburban subdevelopments along with the requisite compost piles, garbage cans, bird feeders and kind hearts who set out bowls full of cat food at night for the ‘porch cats’ of the neighborhood.

    Watching from the windows of our NY house we have seen deer, bear, turkey, ‘coon, bobcats, fox, coyote, skunk, ‘possum and flying squirrel, as well as the more pedestrian gray squirrel, cottontail rabbit, chipmunk, woodchuck and feral cats of the village. In Maine add moose , porcupine and snowshoe rabbit but not yet the neighborhood fisher.

  • leslie Said,

    Now that you mention it, I do remember we started to worry as its flinching confirmed it was reaching in and luring live guard bees. But I continue to maintain there WERE dead bees in front of the hive before the ‘possum got there.

  • Jared Said,

    For a few summers at least when I was little, we had a possum in the yew at the corner of my parent’s house in Schenectady. I’d take a flashlight outside at night to look at it. It never quite played dead, but it stayed plenty still as I shined the light all around it. I love their noses.

  • leslie Said,

    Jared, maybe we should take a poll on most loved possum parts. The thing that knocks me out are those extremely pink feet.

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