It’s late autumn/early winter, and I see dead possums. I’ve seen several dead young opossums in the streets near my home. I realized how common this animal is in my neighborhood. And how little I knew about them.
So, I set out to learn about these quiet, unassuming neighbors of mine. The more I learned, the more I realized, Virginia opossums are some of the weirdest animals I have ever come across.
As many of you know, I grew up in a family of fishing-hunting-trapping-gardening-farming-foraging southerners. At my grandparents’ home, I’ve eaten a wide variety of unconventional meats. When my grandfather died, I told people I had eaten my last opossum. After learning about opossums, boy do I mean it.
Quick note: Apparently, the opossum with an ‘o’ is the North American animal. Possum without the “o” refers to an animal in Australia. But, American southerners often shorten “opossum” to “possum”. The name opossum is from an Algonquin Indian language which means, ‘white-faced’.
This post is about the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana), found in eastern North Amerca and introduced along the Pacific coast.
Virginia Opossum Behavior
Opossums are solitary, quiet animals. They avoid contact with humans, animals, and other opossums. Opossums are most active at night (nocturnal). During the warm months, they are most active in the middle of the night.
So, that explains why I am often awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of animals fighting. During the summer, I sleep with my bedroom window open. I hear strange screeches and shrieks. I always think its’ raccoons, possums, and cats, having disagreements. It is possibly opossums getting in scraps with other animals.
Last summer, I found a dead and mutilated opossum in my flower bed. I’ll spare the mutilation details. That animal had apparently been in a fight and lost. Animal Control took the dead body away the next day.
Opossums are quite nomadic in their home ranges. They don’t sleep in the same den regularly. They bed down in different dens each night. They wander most in summer.
An individual may wander over two miles in a night. But, they don’t move too far from a temporarily available food source, like my ripening strawberries or blueberries.
In winter, opossums are more active during the day. Opossums don’t hibernate, they just are less active. They aren’t built for winter. Cold weather kills a number of them. Many possums have frostbitten ears and tails which can lead to gangrene and death. Look for frostbitten, blackened tips on their tails and ears.
Opossum Diet and Food
Opossums are scavengers, cannibalistic, and omnivores. They eat just about anything.
They are not good hunters but take advantage of easily obtained meals. They eat meat the main part of their diet. Their preferred food is insects, mostly beetles. They also eat:
- bird eggs and young
- amphibians and reptiles (including poisonous snakes)
- fruits, grapes, pokeweed, Pawpaws, berries including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc.
- nuts, grasses, green vegetation, corn
- carrion of all sorts
Some animals will turn to cannibalism in extreme circumstances. Opossums will eat possum young or another possum at any time.
Virginia Opossum Habitat and Home Range
The Opossums family is found only in the Americas. There are 75 species of opossums in North, Central, and South America. The opossum, I am focusing on here is the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). It is a mammal and the only indigenous and wild (read: free) marsupial in North America.
Virginia Opossums are found in Eastern North America from southern Maine, Southern Canada, and Michigan to South Dakota; south through Mexico and Central America to Costa Rica.
The Virginia Opossums are absent from the Plains and arid southwest of the United States. Their prepared habitat is wooded or shrubby. They like cover and places to hide. So, you will find them in forests, woodlands, and urban areas.
Opossums don’t make dens but sleep in abandoned dens of other animals. They like hollow trees and branches, crevices, caves under rocks, soil, and leaf litter.
Opossum Communication and Interactions
Opossums are generally very quiet. They can make a few standard sounds. Opossums will communicate with hisses, growls, and screeches in hostile encounters with animals and humans. Males, females, and young also make clicking sounds.
I accidentally trapped an opossum in a Havahart trap a few years back. It was calm enough that I felt okay opening the cage and letting it walk out of the cage. The opossum slowly walked out of the cage, glanced back at me, and disappeared into the underbrush in my garden.
Luckily, I didn’t touch the opossum. The animal has the ability to excrete a musky greenish fluid from its’ anal glands. I’m glad that didn’t happen.
It also has the ability to faint and appear dead. This is what people call ‘playing possum’. They aren’t pretending to be dead, they actually faint from fear. They may snap out of it minutes or hours later. It isn’t easy to get an older more experienced opossum to faint, but the younger ones may pass out more easily.
Opossums don’t live long. An individual may live just a few months or a single year. An opossum in captivity can live longer.
Virginia Opossum Courtship and Mating
Being solitary animals, opossums avoid each other. During the breeding season (January to July in the United States), males and females find each other and mate.
During mating the male and female fall over on their right sides. Falling over seems to be crucial to conception. If the couple doesn’t fall over the female doesn’t conceive. I don’t know what to say, except don’t try this at home.
Raising Opossum Young and Being Marsupial
Gestation lasts just two weeks. After two weeks, eight or nine young are born. The young are so small about twenty could fit in a teaspoon.
After birth, the young must crawl three inches to the mother’s pouch. The mother’s pouch makes the animal a marsupial. In the pouch, the young must attach themselves to a teat. The mother has thirteen teats, of which only seven to ten actually give milk. Any ’surplus’ young die from lack of a teat (food).
Opossum mothers provide very little maternal care. The mother will clean the pouch and any young there, but that is it.
After three months, the young are weaned and begin to roam away from the mother.
Possum Foes and Enemies
Few animals prey on opossums. Besides humans, cars, dogs, foxes, and owls, the opossum is free from being hunted.
The dead opossums I saw around the corner from my house, had been run over by cars. The dead one in my garden lost a fight.
Opossums are immune to the poison of snakes of the pit viper family (crotalid) such as rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water mocassins. If bitten the opossum may have some mild discomfort, but it recovers quickly. This is a possum superpower.
Young opossum may be eaten by adults. I don’t know if the young are most vulnerable when they are tiny and in the pouch or when older. Or both.
Opossums in the Ecosystem
Opossums eat many ticks and other insects. They eat carrion. In this way, they keep an ecosystem clean and healthy.
Finally, I could have easily doubled the length of this post with more possum fascination. When you learn about how opossums, ‘function’, you realize what a wonderful world we live in. The individual who designed these animals, must have a great sense of humor?
If you have opossum encounters or comments you would like to share feel free to add them to the comments below.
Get to Know the Virginia Opossum (Video)
Another Possum Video
More information can be found in the Encyclopedia of Life (links to another website).