Wednesday, January 04, 2012

It Certainly Didn't Play Possum!

I had a usual visitor at an unusual time of day today:  an opossum decided that the birdseed in one of my feeders was much too delicious to leave alone just because the sun was coming up.
I've had opossums at my feeders off and on over the years and I knew that I was hosting at least one this fall, since I would find the pellets in the feeder in the morning.  (Also, when we were having skunks visit regularly in the evening, we would often see them while we were doing a skunk-check with a flashlight before letting the dogs out.)

This morning, when I somewhat blearily surveyed the backyard feeders, I suddenly woke up to the fact that the tree trunk hadn't, in fact, grown a burl overnight - there was a fairly small opossum on it, perched a few feet above the hanging platform feeder.  It stayed there most of the morning, carefully watching my movements in the house.  When I let the cat out, she noticed the opossum and climbed the tree (to investigate more closely?) but stayed at least 3' away at all times.  The opossum simply kept quietly watching her and me.

After I went upstairs for a while, the opossum decided the coast was clear and descended to the feeder to continue chowing down.  When I let the shepherds out for their walk late this morning, Becker and Blue looked at it for a while but made no effort to catch it, although it was probably well within their reach on the feeder.  In fact, the cheeky little thing didn't really get upset at all, even when I decided this was an opportunity to get a closeup photo or two.  Throughout all the staring and shutter snapping, it stayed firmly on the feeder, watching carefully and occasionally pulling its lips back a bit.  By the time I got back from a trip to town later this afternoon, though, it had moved on. 

I learned something new tonight:  a "possum" is actually an animal that lives in Australia or New Zealand.  Our North American marsupials are correctly called "opossums."   There are apparently 103 species of opossums in the Western Hemisphere!  The species we have here in Kansas is the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana.  It was originally confined to the East Coast, but was spread to the West Coast during the Depression, perhaps as a source of food.

Opossums have never concerned me too much.  They are fairly resistant to rabies and thus are very uncommon carriers of it, perhaps because their body temperatures run low for mammals (94-97 degrees Fahrenheit).   They are not really aggressive, hissing loudly when threatened but not likely to attack.  And, of course, they are well known for their habit of falling over, as if dead, when really threatened.

As I did research this evening, I learned that opossums are occasionally called "Nature's Little Sanitation Engineers" for their eating habits:  primarily animal material such as snails, slugs, insects, spiders, rats, mice, even snakes.  They will also eat fruit (especially fruit drop on the ground), berries, nuts, and vegetables.  And they eat carrion.  As is typical of such omnivorous animals, they are easily attracted to yards with such attractions as pet food left out overnight, garbage cans without tight lids, and...full birdfeeders.

On the plus side, one source I read even suggested that opossums may help reduce the spread of Lyme disease, since they "kill off" (eat?) almost all the ticks that feed on them.

Overall, I consider opossums to be benign yard guests - no more of a problem than squirrels, with a similar likelihood of getting into attics or sheds or garages if I'm lazy enough or silly enough to leave openings for them to do so.  And if I really cared about keeping them out of the bird seed, I would simply pole mount all of my platform feeders.

In fact, having read the list of their preferred foods, I strongly suspect that opossums provide me with a reasonable amount of pest control for the relatively minor cost of a bit of bird seed.

So, until and unless one really causes me a problem, I'm going to relax and enjoy this neighbor with whom I'm sharing the yard and gardens.  Diversity, after all, is the spice of life!


ProfessorRoush said...

Wow,thanks, you certainly educated me on "opossums" today....I didn't know that there were so many Native American species or that we had opossums, not possums here. said...

Your little guy must have been hungry -To see him during the day,aren't they nocturnal? I've had opposums hiss at me when I got too close. Ugh! You are right - live and let live. Have a great day.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Prof, there are a couple species in Mexico and Central America, but the vast majority are in South America. I hadn't realized how many opossums there were in this hemisphere either! (My favorite common name? Cinderella Fat-Tailed Opossum!)

Gaia Gardener: said...

Claudia, I suspect you're right about the hunger issue. It's the only reason I can think that he/she would have been out during the day - and so entirely focused on food. They are nocturnal generally.

Their hiss is pretty ferocious - if I remember correctly, they have the most teeth of any mammal (but don't quote me on that one!), which makes their curled lips even more impressive. However nasty their hiss is, though, they really aren't particularly aggressive.

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I've seen them nasty and I've seen them play dead. I've also seen them with little ones attached. That is adorable.
An opossum in a hen house is a bad thing. They will suck the blood from chickens (any fowl) and eat eggs. I remember losing a couple of young peacocks to an opossum on the farm. It was a bad thing if we forgot to close the chicken house in the evening.
We have them here in town. I have photos of them in our garden. Once, animal patrol was trying to catch a sick cat in our neighborhood with a live trap baited with tuna. They caught an opossum instead. On our patio. Boy was it mad! Glad I didn't have to relocate it.
You got great photos. They're cute in that ugly, cute way!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Sherlock, I'm not surprised they create havoc in a henhouse, as birds and eggs are on their menu plan!

I'm not sure that I've ever seen one with young attached. (I know I've seen photos, but I don't think I've seen the real thing....) That would be fun, especially if it was out away from my property! :-) I don't mind sharing a little birdseed, but I have no desire to be feeding an entire, growing family!

greggo said...

I noticed some weird droppings around the feeders, I wonder if I have some.

Gaia Gardener: said...

I hadn't thought of doing so, but if I get a good "sample", I'll shoot a picture of the dropping and post it. They are quite dry and fairly distinctive in the feeder.