Biting Back Garlic Mustard

Throughout Ontario, an innocuous looking weed has taken hold. It has spread through the countryside, into gardens, and into conservation areas like Altona Forest. It will grow in shade or sun and has the ability to alter the soil’s biology. It pushes out native plants that support wildlife and rare native butterflies. This insidious invasive alien is a herb called garlic mustard.

Would you recognize garlic mustard if you see it? It grows to about a foot and half high, has small four-petaled white flowers at this time of year, and triangular serrated-edged leaves. I’ve seen it all around our neighbourhood – and in the forest.

IMG_8757 (2)Lots of garlic mustard near post 36 or 30

You will see many community-organized events aimed at getting rid of it. And even in areas where the challenge has been dealt with it will move back in, so vigilance and constant action is the only recourse. Seeds remain viable in the soil for years – necessitating regular removal. Each garlic mustard plant produces hundreds of seeds – spread by people (clothing, shoes and bike tires) and animals, by wind, along streams and trails.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was intentionally brought to the area as a cooking herb. It is native to Europe, Asia and north Africa. If you crush a leaf between your fingers it has garlic scent. It’s actually an interesting and tasty herb.

Invasive plants have long been a problem – things that were planted for a purpose or that stowed away unseen on ships only to gain a foothold in these woods. Foreign invasive plants don’t have any natural uses for wildlife so they don’t benefit the native ecosystem, they push out (out-compete) natives that actually do contribute to the local biodiversity and life-cycles, and they have no local enemies or predators so they spread uncontrollably.

imageedit_6_8568770773Garlic mustard pushes out native wildflowers like trillium, toothwort, and trout lilies and changes the biology of the soil to keep natives from returning.

Garlic mustard brings together two usually-opposed groups:

Firstly, conservation areas are regulated and protected so species are not to be disturbed in any way. With so much of the land converted for human habitation, farming and commercial use, saving ravines, watershed areas, and even small tracts of land is vital. They become less viable for plant, bird and other species. Every native plant becomes more important.

Secondly, we have seen a marked rise in the interest in home-grown foods and foraging. Many cultural groups also have long histories of foraging for foods in natural areas. This is problematic for a number of reasons: most natural areas are protected by law and should not be foraged from. More importantly, only 2-3 people can completely deplete a plant for this year and all future years. If the foraging ethos is only remove 1 of 4 of the plants, each successive person exponentially depletes the reproducing stock. This is because small areas of land are over-used by many people.

Enter garlic mustard. It’s foreign and an invasive plant. It’s delicious and has many uses in the kitchen. It’s easy to identify and harvest. So should you pull it up from a conservation area and take it home for dinner? Absolutely! (Just be very careful where you step so you don’t kill next years native wildflowers.) You can’t deplete it enough – take all you want. Is that official? Likely not – because those who don’t understand the whole story will see ambiguity and trample or remove native species from these amazing places to the long-term detriment of nature.

Garlic mustard is easily found, tasty, and a foragable food. Harvest it – and enjoy it. It is the best of all worlds when you are helping the forest, native biodiversity, and trying the foraging trend in the only genuinely sustainable way. Bon appetite!


The easiest time to identify garlic mustard is when it’s in bloom       Image ~ pixabay

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Invasive Species Awareness Program Listing

Recognizing Garlic Mustard (photos)

Garlic Mustard Fact Sheet (pdf)

Garlic Mustard (US source – NY Invasive Species)

Impacts of Garlic Mustard (US source – Penn State)

OMAFRA overview

Butterfly At Risk (due to garlic mustard)


PS Even if you don’t want to eat it, please join a group and pull it! And remember – invasive species go in the garbage and NOT in yard waste collection or composting


Biting Back Garlic Mustard ~ © 2017 Natasha G


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Going For Golds

One of the most eye-catching spring flowers in Altona Forest is the marsh marigold. It is a cheery late April-May bloomer with bright yellow flowers and deep green, rounded heart-shaped leaves. Have you seen one? Do you know where to look?

I was looking for herons in the south ponds in May when I saw what looked like a whole field of buttercups at the marshy end of the pond. I could see a few plants closer to where I was standing and scrambled to get a better look.


proliferating along a sunny stream

It didn’t take much research to identify the beautiful plant as a marsh marigold; a native bloomer sometimes called cowslip, king cup, or Caltha palustris if you want to use the scientific nomenclature. The plant is unlike garden ‘marigolds’ we are familiar with: it’s a succulent member of the buttercup family that grows only in wetlands.  It is closer to a waterlily and can dry up and become dormant in the hot, parched summer months. The closed ball-shaped flower bud is very much like ranunculus – they are from the same family.

Since this plant is also native to Europe, there are longstanding traditions of using it in food and gardening. There are many more names for this plant in Europe and England, one being the ‘mayflower’- an interesting historical reference to spring celebrations and the ship that carried the puritans to America.

Although the leaves of the marsh marigold are poisonous and the sap is caustic, they are edible when prepared correctly. (What crazy person figured that out?) Other human uses are in herbal remedies. Marsh marigold has medicinal properties used by the first nations in preparations for colds.


Bud structure and young flower

Marsh marigolds offer so much to our wetlands and manage to look as though they were planted by expert gardeners. Each plant grows into a neat clump about a 1.5 feet tall, seeds into the area to create a colourful field or a serpentine line that follows a brook or stream, and looks after itself with very little demands of the type of soil.

Marsh marigolds can be found in any province or territory in Canada. They are perennials hardy to growing Zone 3 – a lot colder than Altona Forest gets. They grow on the edges of water or in marsh or swamp areas, but will tolerate some drought once established. They grow in sun, part-shade, or shady locations and will adapt in soils that range from damp to about 6 inches of water. They are also excellent plants for cleaning the water they inhabit – improving the wetlands as they beautify them. And if you needed yet another reason to love them – they draw butterflies and hummingbirds as well.

If you have a pond, wet area of your garden, or are building a rain garden, consider sourcing native marsh marigolds from a reputable nursery. Whether it’s in your pond-scape or in the wild, marsh marigolds clean water by their intake of nutrients. They are also amazing native replacements for the invasive yellow iris creeping into our wetlands – like the Rouge Park ponds.

Now that you are likely charmed by this sunny native and know that they are found in the moist woodlands and pond edges of Altona Forest, watch for them as you wander the spring-time trails. They are not in many areas, but they are unmistakable when you see them.


Marsh marigold near the south pond- flower detail

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

About Marsh Marigolds (Wiki)

Marsh Marigold Identification, History and Habitat

Historical and Old World References

Marsh Marigold (Aquatic Plant Profile)

How to Grow Marsh Marigolds

Going for Golds ~ © 2017 Natasha G




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Easy Butterfly and Bee Gardens

The long, dark Canadian winter months mean our gardens (like us) can only dream of the warmer days to come. Are you craving warm spring air and blooms? Native over-wintering pollinators are too.

Plant native plants to support our neighbourhood’s biodiversity and it’s supporting role to Altona Forest – and our region as a whole. The gardens near green spaces are vitally important to the health of those spaces: a network of home gardens can provide sustainable habitat for displaced and at-risk pollinators. Be creative this spring – create a pollinator haven with both native blooms and a few ‘fabulous foreigners’.


Want to protect bees, monarchs, and other pollinators while enjoying your garden this year? It’s easy – plant some native blossoms and avoid pesticides/herbicide chemicals in your garden. Yes; it really is that simple. With gardening season around the corner, plan your garden as a pollinator-friendly place.

Birds, bees and butterflies see the world from above and don’t notice the fences and the neat blocks of private property. They see forest and forest edge; food or barrens. Roads, roofs, patios, driveways and traditional lawns are barren deserts to them. Imagine the view through their eyes – what is left?

They seek water, shelter, and reliable, untainted food sources. This is best created with native trees, vines, perennials and annuals. Small gardens with reliable food sources are capable of bringing back habitat if enough homes participate. This blog includes options of natives to plant in our small urban/suburban spaces to support biodiversity.

Not everyone can or will go 100% native in their gardens. Just add a few natives into the mix. I wouldn’t tell you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself – I’ve been living pesticide and herbicide free for a few years and made my garden 30% native plants. Does a smaller percentage still help native bees and butterflies?  You bet!


Native bloodroot blooms early in spring – in the dappled shade under bare trees – a great native option instead of crocus

Native species are easy to add into your current garden and can be striking while supporting local wildlife. Here are some reasons you should add some native plants to your space:

  • They are generally low-maintenance
  • They draw and support local wildlife and insect life in ways we never even considered – but research is beginning to bring to light
  • They are winter/drought hardy to your region
  • They are beautiful

Part 2: Non-Invasive Fabulous FOREIGNERS

There are some plants that are NOT native but are perfect for a pollinator-friendly garden. Here are three fabulous pollinator-friendly foreign plants that will draw native pollinators to your space for food – and come back year after year:

  1. Lavender – The whole plant (leaves, stems and blossoms) smells heavenly while keeping mosquitoes away. Lavender is upright and clumping and if you buy a small plant, it might not blossom for 2-3 years. Don’t panic if it doesn’t. Buy the angustifolia variety since that is the ‘English lavender’ and most likely to thrive in our climate. It needs full sun and well-drained soil. It thrives in dry spots and neglect and draws bees non-stop from mid-July until the end of September if you leave the flowers on the plant. A bonus is that lavender is edible – from the rosemary family – and sprigs can be used as you would use rosemary while thick stems can be used as meat skewers. Blossoms can be used to make sugars and lavender lemonade. Of course you want to leave many of the long-lasting blossoms on the plant for the bees and butterflies too!
  2. imageedit_18_2381164681Sedum – Also known as stonecrop, this is an upright clumping member of a wide group of sedums plants. One of the popular varieties is ‘Autumn Joy’ for its large flower heads, but others are as successful. They are neat growing, no maintenance, and attractive in almost any setting. There are now some purple-leaf and variegated varieties – but verify what light conditions those need before planting them. I grow sedum in full to part-sun and never water them because they are drought tolerant once established. And from August to mid-October, the wide flower heads of the sedum draw a myriad of bees and butterflies. Leave the large flower heads on the plant through winter so they will feed the birds as well as adding some winter texture to the garden.
  3. Buddliea – Referred to as ‘butterfly bush’ with ample reason: if you plant it, they will come. Given the choice of all sorts of butterfly-friendly blooms in a professional garden built for pollinators (Rosetta McClain Garden), I watched as dozens of monarch butterflies went directly for buddleja on their fall migration. Buddleia comes in a myriad of varieties and colours now. This plant’s tall reaching stems look weedy to me, so it’s best in a mixed perennial bed – with full sun (8hrs) if you want to see sufficient blooms. (*While not invasive in the Altona Forest area, this plant is invasive in many areas of the US – please check your local planting guides)


Planters with tropical annuals can also be bee and butterfly magnets if you choose ones with verbena, passion fruit vine, lantana, fuchsia, and geraniums. Zinnias and nasturtiums are easy from-seed garden plants that are kid-project friendly and draw butterflies regularly.

Don’t forget some herbs for a very sunny location and you will have herbs for your table or BBQ while drawing bees and butterflies: the best choices for pollinators are fennel, oregano, sage, thyme and mint (cat mint and cat nip are in this plant-family for your felines).


So go ahead – fall in love with your garden this spring and don’t resist the garden centres. If you give a little thought to pollinators, you’ll help create ‘nectar corridors’ for bees and other migrating pollinators like butterflies in these suburban barrens. Each pollinator-friendly garden supports the integrated ecosystem, strength of biodiversity, and long term viability of green spaces like Altona Forest.

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

What Makes a Pollinator Garden?

Bees and Other Pollinators – an excellent guide to the local pollinators and their needs

Native Plant Inspirations – TRCA pdf – great local plants

Hamilton’s Pollinator Program (wtg Hamilton! Raising the bar for other municipalities)

Gardening for Wildlife – section of the CWF website dedicated to gardeners

Grow Me Instead – Guide to Non-invasive Garden Plants – this link is for the Ontario (north and south) guides, but there are guides for most provinces

Pollinator Habitat – TRCA pdf

How to Draw Hummingbirds

Supporting Pollinators – Ontario Nature

Easy Butterfly And Bee Gardens  ~ © 2017 Natasha G










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Bird-Brained Quest

Inadvertently, I’ve had a winter project. After a fleeting sighting early in winter, a woodpecker has been taunting me. For months. I was only able to catch a shadowy, blurry far-off photo – but it was definitive: a red-bellied woodpecker had arrived in Altona Forest.

I love woodpeckers.

I’ve spilled coffee. Burned my lunch. I’ve sat holding a camera waiting for him to appear until my arm ached… all trying to get photos of him (her?). Dozens of irredeemably blurry photos.

He frequents the blue trail from posts 17-20 between the trail and the houses.

He even visits my garden and enjoys my suet – but he does not stay still – a flash of red and he’s gone. Wants my hospitality but won’t pose. I know he’s mocking me. Mocking! Don’t let the sweet face, elegant shape, and incredibly marked wings of this Carolinian cutie fool you. He loves teasing and taunting.

It’s almost as though he’s decided to tolerate the gaze of my cat (who has a crush on him) but flee at even the shape of me. Of course, he’s invariably right there when I least expect it – and gone if I so much as move a muscle. I’ve luckily been able to see him at very close range at the suet that hangs on the house wall – about 8ft from me and my coffee.

Another cruel joke is the name ‘red-bellied’ woodpecker. What red belly?

So that’s my winter… outwitted by a bird brain!

(And postponing my monthly article just to show him to you… finally)


(That’s my Altona story – I want to hear yours – what have you been seeing or doing in the forest? Post your stories & photos on


Bird-Brained Quest ~ © 2017 Natasha G








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Winter Photo Scavenger Hunt

It’s that time of year when many of us are feeling starved for outdoor fun or trapped with too much indoor time. It might be hard to find the motivation to get into nature when winter lingers.

If you’re seeking a new way to have some winter forest fun, try a photo-scavenger hunt. All you need is a device (camera, cell phone, tablet) that captures images, a list of things to find and photograph, and warm layers to keep out the chill. Unleash your creativity and find a way to make each photo interesting by getting up close or changing the angle.

To make this outing easier to plan for your friends, family, walking group, or partner, here’s a 20 item list for your winter exploration in Altona Forest:

  1. A cut tree showing its growth rings
  2. A bracket fungus/mushroom on a tree trunk
  3. A woodpecker hole
  4. A plant with berries
  5. An animal trail in the snow
  6. A bird (hint – winter is great for spotting woodpeckers)
  7. Something bright green
  8. A nature sculpture
  9. A piece of nature caught in ice
  10. A tree with some leaves still on it
  11. Something that shouldn’t be in the forest
  12. A trail sign/marker
  13. A bent tree
  14. Boardwalk (over wet areas)
  15. A cone on/from an evergreen tree
  16. Someone hugging a tree
  17. Something that starts with the first letter of your name
  18. Tree bark so interesting it looks like art
  19. A bench (preferably with you and your group on it – to remember your visit)
  20. One great photo to share – post on My Altona Forest facebook page (tag it with PhotoScavengerHunt if you want to see it on the page’s main wall)

Don’t forget your list as you head out the door.

Feb12 030

This list is comprised of 3 types of items; easy to find items, difficult to find items, and items that invite creativity or interpretation. Check things off as you find them – and look for things you can add to future lists if you want to re-create the challenge. Here’s what it might look like.

I have based this list on an easy walking loop (#1 below) in the forest but consider the other routes as well. Take along the map if you are unfamiliar with the trails:

  1. Start at the Summer Park entrance and follow the blue trail from posts 15-25, along the boardwalk from 25-27 near post and then back out near post 15.
  2. A very popular extended loop is following posts 15-24,  then along the boardwalk in ascending order (28-30) and then onto the trail from 31-35. Turn north/east at the fork and follow posts 13-15 and exit back to Summer Park.
  3. A third winter walk  for your scavenger hunt is entering at post 1 (Strouds Entrance) and walking north to at least Lacey’s Pond (post 12) before turning back.

Doing the same list on a different route – or in a different conservation area – makes this a brand new challenge.

A photo-scavenger hunt gives you a bounty of great photos you can collage or post to social media. If you are sharing publicly, please consider tagging #AltonaForest so we can enjoy your views and perspective of the forest!

Beyond getting out for some fresh air and exploration of nature, a photo scavenger hunt gives you reason to look more carefully, get closer, and discover new things along familiar routes.

Jan31 107

PS Here’s a young-kids version of a winter scavenger hunt – you can use it in tandem with the grown-up photo version above – enjoy!

Winter Photo Scavenger Hunt ~ © 2017 Natasha G



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Woodpeckers of the Winter Woods

One of the best things about winter walks in Altona Forest is being able to see woodpeckers clearly and frequently. They are often found busily tapping for insects or their larvae and will generally ignore you watching them or aiming a camera in their direction.

Have you seen woodpeckers in Altona Forest? From mid-January to late-March is a great time to wander the forest observing them. It’s always exciting to happen upon the large almost prehistoric looking pileated woodpecker!

What makes a woodpecker a woodpecker? Why is a nuthatch was not part of this family? Both are insect eaters tapping tree bark in search of food. Woodpeckers, flickers and sapsuckers are often grouped together – with their sturdy pointed beaks built for chiseling wood, their clawed feet for gripping tree trunks, their stiff tails for balance and leverage, and short strong legs for their typical movement upwards on a tree. Nuthatches are classified as song birds and move both up and down trees – similar diet but their body morphology apparently differs.

There are three common woodpeckers in Altona Forest: the downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers. The first two are hard to tell apart – it will require seeing them a number of  times and learning to recognize their sizes and beak shapes. The markings are remarkably similiar with males of both downy and hairy similarly marked with a red patch on the backs of their heads (the females of both species don’t have the red). The hairy is larger with a longer beak – nearly as long as it’s head. Don’t stress this ID; it’s advanced birding and becomes easier when you’re seeing them on a regular basis.

Luckily, matching the name to the woodpecker is easy with this mnemonic: size of bird increases alphabetically. Downy is the smallest, Hairy  is mid-sized and Pileated is large.



Downy woodpecker near Altona Forest’s south ponds. Bad example since the beak looks very long in this photo – but good because you can see the comparative size of the bird to the sumac



Hairy woodpecker in Altona Forest’s cedar grove



Pileated woodpecker in Altona Forest (near Lacey’s Pond). I was so excited to see her low on the tree, that I dropped my camera in the snow

Winter woodpecker spotting is easy; walk along and pause periodically and listen for the taps against the tree bark. Follow the sounds with your eyes or camera – woodpeckers tend to be engrossed in their work. With the leaves gone, you have much better sight-lines. A second way to spot them is to look below trees as you walk – you may see wood chips below a tree indicating that there are woodpeckers in the area. Don’t miss the opportunity to examine the holes they make.

While woodpeckers can be seen in many areas along the trails, the north ‘blue’ loop of trail between posts 16 and 23 is a hot-spot. Another spot is the viewing platform at the amphibian pond near post 30. These areas are particularly hard hit by the foreign invasive emerald ash borer and many trees are infected and dying. This means that insects of all sorts are moving into these trees – providing a feast for woodpeckers. What is tragic for the forest is a boon for woodpecker populations.

In winter, those who put out suet might be rewarded with periodic feeder-visits by both downy and hairy woodpeckers.

These are the woodpeckers you will see most frequently but it’s possible to see others in Altona Forest. It’s very rare but I’ve seen and photographed a yellow bellied sap sucker, a red bellied woodpecker and more commonly (especially in the south ponds area) northern flickers. My photos are blurry at best – but there’s no mistaking who they are.

As I wander Altona’s snowy paths in winter, I’m reminded that the symbol used on the newsletters and TRCA titles for Altona Forest is a woodpecker. An apt choice of icon for these woods. See you (and them!) on the trails.


The only woodpecker above I haven’t seen in Altona Forest is the red-headed                                                                       Amsel, Sheri. “Animal Signs – Woodpeckers” copyrighted from found on Pinterest

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Downy or Hairy? (A tough question)

D is for Downy (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

H is for Hairy (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

P is for Pileated (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Woodpeckers of the Winter Woods ~ © 2017 Natasha G






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Oh Possum!

This time of year brings flocks of juncos to my birdseed, woodpeckers to the suet, and a strange set of footprints under my feeders. I watch carefully to see a possum wander into my garden at dusk or early evening. As the nights get cold, and snow covers the ground, possums are forced to brave the cold and wander further afield to find food.

Am I the only one who thinks possums are cute? Many people see them as frightening, foreign, dangerous, or ‘a face only a mother could love’. They are smaller than raccoons and have the back-end of an over-large rat with lots scary-looking teeth on the front end (they show these out of fear). They can also appear scruffy and disheveled. Don’t fall for the scare-mongering bad press – and look beyond first impressions.

Possums are too-often unfairly vilified. I’ve heard sad tales of people harming them or purposely hitting them with cars (like turtles – not their fault that nature built them to be slow). I can’t imagine this kind of cruelty – but this post on facebook made me realize that it was past time to write about my winter-friends.


Original source unknown – but we’re thankful!

Possums are peaceful, slow-moving, non-aggressive, and generally good neighbours. They don’t carry diseases, damage decks or roofs, and don’t attack humans or pets. Just don’t try to touch them – they are still wild animals. They hiss and show you their teeth when they are afraid or cornered – it’s their defense mechanism. They are pretty harmless – so much so that when terrified they sometimes ‘faint’.

I loved the term ‘playing possum’ but it took me a while to understand what that really meant. When possums are confronted and afraid, they lose consciousness – appearing dead. Like skunks, they can emit a ‘fear stink’ if approached – but unlike other creatures, they fall over, drool, and become involuntarily catatonic.

Possums are immigrants to our forests – moving northwards with the milder winters. But just because they are newcomers and strange to us doesn’t mean that they are bad. Possums crossed the land bridge and began their northward migration when the north and south American land masses collided millennia ago… the retreating ice age allowed them more viable range.

They are officially named ‘Virginia opossums’ (Didelphia virginiana) and are amazing creatures – evolutionary wonders – the only North American mammal with ‘pouches’ for their young. They are marsupials – they carry their joeys like kangaroos – and I’ve met their Australian cousins in Brisbane’s backyards. Marsupials are some of our planet’s earliest mammals. Prehensile (clinging) tails and opposable thumbs allow possums to climb. Solitary and nocturnal, they are also adaptable omnivores – like humans or raccoons – and will eat insects, snails and slugs, grains, berries, fruits, eggs, small snakes, amphibians or carrion. Possums fill an important role in the forest food chain but will seek garbage cans, compost piles, and outdoor pet food when hunger pushes them to it.


found on facebook – posted by Nikki Headley

Does ‘new’ mean ‘invasive’? No. Possums or ‘opossums’ are native to North America, and only the long icy winters have kept them from living in these woods in the past. They can’t hibernate, don’t have a warm thick coat of fur, and have bare feet, ears and tails that are prone to painful frostbite. They are not built for the cold like many of our other woodland creatures and have a great deal of difficulty walking in deep snow, foraging in long winters, and surviving the deep freeze.

Many possums die each winter – falling prey to harsh cold, hunger, or off-leash dogs, hawks and owls. Sadly they have short lives of just one to two years and this explains why they breed at young ages and have large ‘litters’. They live a harsh existence.

Possums are part of Altona Forest – I’ve seen one or two a year for the past several years – walking along the fence or foraging under my bird feeders. They are welcome to all the grubs, voles, bugs and seed they can find: their eating habits rid us of a number of pests. In fact I stored fall pumpkins in our garage to open-compost them in the back corner of my garden in December-January – providing some winter food for the possum and nutrients for my trees.

I think that we can learn to be generous and compassionate with nature; kind to fellow creatures simply looking to survive and coexist in peace. There is always a way to find balance and be inclusive.


Image ~ pixabay


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

For a hilarious depiction of our city-friendly wildlife and possums, I’d suggest watching the movie ‘Over The Hedge‘. This movie is a great way to introduce kids to possums – and to discuss their lives, challenges, and roles (and those of other urban wildlife). William Shatner does the possum voice-over; too funny.

Possums in Ontario (Ontario Nature)

Southern Ontario Possums

About Possums (wiki)

All About Possums BioKids Program – University of Michigan

Virginia Opossums (National Geographic)

Opossums (Britannica)

Living with Possums

Oh Possum! ~ © 2016 Natasha G



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