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.
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.
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.
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)
About Possums (wiki)
All About Possums BioKids Program – University of Michigan
Virginia Opossums (National Geographic)
Oh Possum! ~ © 2016 Natasha G