By Chelsea Jandreau
I recently realized that I haven’t been outside in nature at night without the encumbrance of lights, cars and an abundance of people in some time. I haven’t been camping recently. I no longer lead night hikes, and I live in a place that is awash with parking lot lights. Luckily for me, the increasing hours of darkness make the nocturnal world a little more accessible. Hey, we have to find the silver lining wherever we can, right?
There are many animals that come out at night rather than during the day. The behaviors of these nocturnal creatures changes as it gets cold. Just because there is a greater length of time where it is dark, that does not mean that every nocturnal animal is partying it up out there. Any residual warmth from the sun disappears and it can be bitterly cold, which encourages many animals to spend greater amounts of time in their dens, burrows or other shelters.
As you begin to ponder what nocturnal creatures are doing in the winter, it’s likely animals such as bats, coyotes, foxes, owls or even deer might pop into your head. But, might I suggest we consider the opossum? The Virginia Opossum is an animal that is not usually mentioned in general conversation until you come across one unexpectedly. Unfortunately, this relatively small creature, no bigger than your average house cat, has a bad reputation, along with many other nocturnal animals. However, they are still beneficial to their ecosystem and an important part in the food chain.
When you don’t see something very often, certain characteristics or behaviors get exaggerated and the stories don’t always paint an accurate picture. Nocturnal animals, especially, can be vilified and end up with a reputation of being weird, gross, dangerous or downright creepy. This has become the fate of the Virginia Opossum.
Now, let’s get the first question out of the way. Is it a possum or an opossum? I’ll admit that I also sometimes call them a possum rather than saying the ‘o’ on the front, but if you want to be technical, that’s not correct. A possum is actually a marsupial found in Australia, Indonesia and elsewhere in that region.
Marsupials are a type of mammal that raise their young in a pouch. The babies are born much less developed than other mammals and spend the rest of the development inside the mother’s pouch instead. The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial native to the United States. Don’t worry though, it’s pretty likely no one is going to bother correcting you, so you can keep saying the shortened version. The opossum certainly won’t care what you call it as long as you leave it alone.
As humans have spread out, Virginia Opossums have found their way closer to centers of human activities. They are omnivores who are not picky when it comes to food. These opportunistic scavengers eat rodents, insects, plants, berries, other dead animals, and even our trash and compost piles.
They are a little surprising to come across by accident, though. They have a lot of small, pointy teeth and, when threatened, they bare their teeth in a show of aggressiveness. However, that’s usually all it is. It is generally a pretty effective tactic to make yourself look scary in order to encourage a threat to leave. They rarely bite, unless something continues to try and attack them.
They thoroughly groom themselves using those sharp teeth though. They pick through their fur, eating any insects or other creepy crawlies they find, including ticks, which can help to keep the growing tick population in check.
Often the only thing people know about opossums, is that they “play dead”. Opossums are not speedy creatures. They have small legs relative to the size of their body and so they rely on other behaviors to avoid predators. They bare their teeth and growl first, but if that doesn’t work, they have another defense. They fall completely and involuntarily unconscious. This can last for a few minutes to several hours, depending on the danger. This obviously doesn’t work for other scavengers, but many predators choose to leave dead animals alone and look for food elsewhere, leaving the opossum alone.
As we move well into winter, our usually nocturnal opossum may begin to come out during the day when it is warmer. They are not particularly well adapted for snow, with their bare feet and tails. Like many animals that do not migrate, they spend more time in their dens during the winter. This also means that they are looking for food wherever they can find it and you may be more likely to encounter an opossum near your home. Keep an eye out on the road as well. They eat roadkill, and since we are spending more time driving in the dark now, opossums are much more likely to become roadkill themselves.
As long as you give them their space, they will probably wander off pretty quickly, so there isn’t much to worry about. And even though they appear dangerous and often get perceived as disease-carrying animals, they are usually harmless. They are actually excellent seed dispersers, eat insects, snakes and rodents in urban areas and it is almost impossible for them to carry rabies due to their lower body temperature.
However, as it is also preferable to keep our encounters limited, take stock of your trash cans, make sure you have tight fitting lids and don’t leave dog food or other human food outside that might attract them to your yard. As with all wildlife, as long as you respect the opossum’s space, they will leave you alone as well.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.