Opossums are reviled for their appearance, but can be beneficial in the garden. (Photo by Mick Telkamp)
It’s tough being an opossum. Resembling an oversized rat with coarse gray fur, a long hairless tail, a toothy sneer and long snout, the opossum is unlikely to win any beauty pageants. Lumbering awkwardly in the night, foraging through garbage and dining on anything it can get its weak paws on, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) has a reputation as a dirty, rabies-ridden beast to be reviled and scorned. For the backyard gardener, it may be time to give the opossum another look.
Despite its rodent-like features, the opossum (commonly abbreviated to “possum”) is actually the only marsupial native to North America. Like its Aussie cousin the kangaroo, the opossum has a pouch in which to carry its young after a gestation period of just 13 days. Of a litter of as many as two dozen jellybean-sized babies, up to a dozen may survive to maturity, meaning plenty of opossums will reach foraging age.
Once opossums are old enough to scavenge on their own, everything is fair game for these omnivores, giving them a reputation as pests as they dig into unsecured trash cans, pilfer outdoor pet food or help themselves to unprotected eggs in the chicken coop. Although opossums have been known to attack chickens when food is scarce, the opossums’ diet usually reflects its lumbering, slow-moving lifestyle, eating what has been left behind by other animals, left unattended or fallen to the ground.
Believe it or not, for a gardener with lids on garbage cans and a secure chicken coop, the opossum can be considered a friend. Although they are good climbers, opossums prefer to eat food from the ground, the smellier and softer the better. With a taste for rotten produce, carrion and easily-reached prey like slugs, snails and the occasional mouse, think of the opossum as the clean-up night crew, clearing out fallen fruit and happily munching away on pests that can do actual damage in the garden. It isn’t unthinkable that an opossum will sample low-hanging fruit still on the vine, but a penchant for overripe produce generally means the opossum does more good than harm in the home garden.
Although opossums are prone to carry parasites and diseases associated with rotten food, the risk of contracting rabies from these misunderstood critters is low. A low body temperature makes rabies extremely rare and even then, opossums are unlikely to attack or even defend themselves from humans or larger animals. When confronted, opossums commonly freeze in their tracks, hissing and baring teeth. When the threat is especially high, they will “play possum,” falling over stiff and feigning death, remaining rigid and completely still for up to four hours. The passive defense mechanism of opossums doesn’t always work in their favor, especially when the aggressor is oncoming traffic.
Even though opossums are the gardener’s friend, many would prefer they stay away. To discourage opossums from your yard, keep garbage cans secured, don’t leave pet food outside and clean up fallen fruit or rotted plant materials as soon as they develop. Opossums also like to lurk under buildings and decks. Barriers preventing access to these hideaways may send the nomadic opossum in search of more hospitable surroundings.
For most, though, nocturnal visits from the lowly opossum will range from harmless to helpful. Just don’t get too close. Fleas and lice are par for the course and although they aren’t often aggressive, opossums do have a mouth full of pointed teeth.
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