When I think about animals that I see during the winter, there are a lot of animals I think of — deer, chickadees, Red Foxes, even squirrels. The one animal I never think of? Opossums. For some reason the thought of seeing a little opossum waddling through the snow with its naked little ears and toes seems unimaginable. Yet, guess what kind of animal my parents found hissing behind the dog house this past weekend? An opossum.
When my parents found the opossum curled up behind the dog house, he wasn’t doing much, just hiding in the corner hissing at our dog, Dan. I have seen opossums at their house countless times, but I had never seen one active during the winter.
Most animals that are active during the winter are designed to keep themselves warm. Deer, for example, grow thick guard hairs and fluffy underfur to help keep themselves warm during the dark, cold days of winter. This special winter coat not only traps heat near the deer’s body, it also absorbs heat from the sun. Foxes also grow a long, thick fur coat and large bushy tail during the winter. Like deer, it’s not uncommon to find Red Foxes sleeping out in the open wrapped up in their big, fluffy tail. Squirrels also use their bushy tail to keep themselves warm, but unlike deer and foxes, squirrels are unlikely to leave their warm dens unless they have to. To prepare for long periods of time in their dens, they spend the fall storing food and building up body fat to keep warm throughout the winter.
Opossums, on the other hand, do almost nothing to prepare for the cold winter months of the year. Unlike deer and foxes, opossums do not grow a thick fur coat in the winter and their nearly hairless ears, tails, and feet remain that way, which makes them extremely vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia. Without these winter coats most animals would just curl up in a burrow to wait out the winter, but opossums are not able to do that either. Unlike most animals that hibernate or remain in their dens all winter long, opossums don’t stash food or build up body fat in the fall. Instead, they are forced to leave their dens to find food in the snow.
So how do they do it? How do opossums make it through the winter? Well, first of all, when opossums aren’t waddling around in the snow searching for food they spend most of the winter hidden away in their dens. These dens can be in a variety of locations from hollow logs to wood piles to spaces in buildings. To keep dens warm opossums will line their nests with dried leaves, grass, and other soft materials. The coolest part of the whole nest insulating process? Opossums will actually carry their nesting materials with their tails instead of their mouths. Believe me, I thought this fact was a little crazy too, but don’t worry, there are videos out there to confirm it. The fluffy materials serve as insulation to keep the den protected and warm during even the coldest of days.
When opossums do leave their dens during the winter, it’s usually during the day. While opossums are typically nocturnal animals but during the winter, especially when food is scarce, many opossums become active during the day when temperatures are slightly warmer.
Another thing that helps opossums survive the winter is their opportunistic diet. Opossums are omnivores, animals that eat both plants and meat, so they aren’t very picky about what they eat. In fact, opossums eat everything from small mammals and berries to dead animals and garbage. In the winter, when food is scarce, opossums can often be found hunting around bird feeders and stealing dog food from bowls left outside. This is, without a doubt, what the little opossum at my parent’s house was after when he got scared into the corner between the house and the dog house. As soon as the dogs were taken inside, he disappeared right back into the woods.
So, while opossums aren’t necessarily designed to be active all winter long, I won’t be surprised the next time I see an opossum or signs of opossums in the winter. That being said, let’s hope I don’t have to see a poor, little opossum shivering in the cold again any time soon.
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 open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Margaret Foley is a naturalist at Audubon Community Nature Center.