After seven years I had reluctantly resigned myself to believing that I’d have to go to Australia to see my first wild marsupial. This acceptance was followed, as often seems to happen, by two sightings in just two days!
It is a little inaccurate to say that I’d never seen an opossum in the GTA before, but I don’t tend to count rescue animals or road kill as ‘sightings’.
The first of my two sightings came after a neighbour told me she had one showing up in her backyard every night. Hoping for a bit of luck, I crossed the street and sure enough, hiding behind a tree was the little guy with his curious face. He was foraging in dry grasses for food and he did not seem to notice me or even care that I was watching him.
I was fascinated by his cute pink nose and feet. He did turn his head to look at me at one point, and I noticed he had had one large white tooth sticking out each side of his mouth. I watched him for a good 10 minutes, then left him alone to find his food. I had to wonder how often I must have been close to one of these little creatures, and never noticed, during my many nature walks and photography excursions.
The second sighting was short, but a little more humorous. The day following the trip to my neighbour’s yard I went for a lunchtime walk, and just happened to turn my head at the right moment to see another opossum taking its own afternoon stroll. I only saw this one for minute – not for lack of time or desire, but because after a few steps he must have hit a soft spot in the ice. One moment he was on top of the snow and the next there was an opossum-shaped hole in the snowbank!
While this has been a horrible winter for many of our small woodland neighbours, opossums in particular are vulnerable to frostbite on the tips of their ears and tails.
Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) are the only marsupial in North America (99 per cent of marsupials live in Australia). The female has a pouch, like a kangaroo, and carries and nurses up to 14 (six to 10 on average) young in the pouch until they are about two months old. Opossums weigh around two to six kg (four to 14 pounds) and have grey to black fur, black eyes, a pink pointed nose, pink feet and tails, black ears and 50 teeth. Opossums are omnivores, which means they eat whatever is available seasonally, preferring insects, snails, berries, fruit, grasses, snakes, and corn.
Perhaps the most common question is, do opossums really play possum? Definitely. When an opossum is trapped or in trouble it will fall down on its side, with its mouth open, and let off a really bad smell, in the hopes that whatever is bothering it is only interested in ‘fresh meat.’
To avoid human conflict with opossums, the main thing is to observe and respect them from a distance and, please, do not leave out pet food. Clean up spilled bird feed (I have trouble with this one all the time), keep suet out of reach, and keep lids on composters and garbage cans.
Ann Brokelman is an avid birder and nature photographer – naturephotosbyann.blogspot.ca