Outrageous Opossums

Courtesy of the Mass Audubon Society’s Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary. Used with permission.

Opossums are very adaptable and will live wherever they can meet their habitat requirements. The opossum has a face that is hard to forget—it features a pointy nose that sports a mouth filled with 50 sharp teeth. They are about the size of a house cat with gray to black fur and black eyes. Their nose, feet, and tail are pink. Although most cartoons will show opossums hanging by their tails, in reality they rarely do so. Their prehensile tail does help them balance and stabilize themselves when climbing. Few live beyond the age of one year in the wild, but there are rare reports of captive opossums living 5 to 10 years.

This nocturnal critter is our only marsupial in North America. This means females have pouches where five to eight young are carried and nursed. (Other marsupials include kangaroos and koala bears.) Opossum mothers carry their babies in their pouch for two to three months, and then the young are carried on her back (whenever they are away from the den) for an additional one to two months.

The fact that opossums are slow moving doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy prey. Opossums will growl and hiss if they are cornered (exposing some of those 50 sharp teeth), but in reality, they are gentle and placid. They prefer to avoid confrontations and wish to be left alone. When frightened and unable to flee, opossums may fall into an involuntary shock-like state where they appear to be dead, hence the phrase “playing ‘possum.” If injured while playing dead, they bleed very little, if at all. And opossums are immune to the poison of rattlesnakes and copperheads. Their predators include domestic pets, owls, and larger mammals. Another hazard to opossums is cars, playing dead doesn’t stop a Buick barreling down the road at 65 miles per hour.

Opossums are not picky eaters—they will eat insects, snails, mice, berries, fruit, grass, leaves, and carrion (dead animals); basically, whatever they can get into their mouth will be considered a meal. They have been known to occasionally eat snakes, eggs, and vegetables from a garden. They are not destructive to your home and do not dig up lawns, chew wood or wires, or create burrows. Since opossums are less secretive than other animals that might engage in these destructive actions, opossums often are blamed because they have been seen prowling about.

If you aren’t enamored with the idea of sharing your yard with an opossum, there are a few things you can do to discourage them. Don’t provide a food source—cover garbage cans, bring in pet food at night, keep fallen fruit from trees picked up, and cover scraps placed on a compost pile with LOTS of grass or leaves. Other tips include keeping shrubbery and brush cleared to make the area less inviting, setting up a temporary fence to block their route, closing the garage door at night, and keeping your yard lit at night. Opossums like it dark and keeping a light on is the best way to encourage them to move along. Of course, just ignoring them and allowing them to go about their business is always an option.