Virginia Opossum, Didelphis virginianus

DIET: Fruit, vegetables, invertebrates, snakes, amphibians, rodents, fish, eggs.

PREDATORS: Mountain lions, bobcats, domestic dogs, coyotes, large raptors.

HABITAT: Areas with trees and tall bushes, including neighborhoods.

WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB: Neighborhoods.

CONSERVATION STATUS: Least concern.

The only marsupials in the United States, Virginia opossums are common backyard mammals the size of housecats.  They spend a lot of their time climbing trees, fences, and overgrown hedges in search of food and as a safe way of traveling.

Appearance

Opossums resemble giant rats, although they are not closely related to rodents.  They are cat-sized with grey fur and a hairless tail.  Their paws look like hands.  They have many teeth, which, unlike those of rodents, are not adapted for gnawing.

Role in Food Chain

Opossums are omnivorous, like many other backyard mammals, and are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever is available.  Fruit and vegetables are one of their main food sources, as well as insects and worms, but they also eat reptiles, amphibians, rodents, fish, and eggs.  The immune system of opossums allows them to kill and eat poisonous animals such as snakes without adverse effects.  In neighborhoods, they will feed on items left unintentionally by humans, such as pet food and garbage.

Predators of opossums include coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, raptors, and domestic dogs.  When they are in danger, they play dead, since some of these predators only hunt and eat living animals.

Habitat and Range

The Virginia opossum is found on the East and West coasts of the United States, and in northern Mexico.  Opossums typically live in habitats with plenty of trees and large shrubs, including neighborhoods.  They nest in abandoned dens of other animals and in tree holes or in overgrown hedges.

Behavior

Opossums are semi-arboreal, meaning that they spend time both in trees and on the ground.  They are nocturnal, and in the daytime they rest in sheltered locations, often above the ground. 

They mate between December and the following October, typically giving birth in the spring.  As soon as they are born, the young crawl into the marsupium, or pouch, and continue their development.  Older young are sometimes seen riding on the mother's back or following her in a line as she forages.

The behavior that opossums are most known for is playing dead.  This is actually an automatic response to danger.  When an opossum is threatened, it faints, and appears dead.  Glands are activated that produce a smell associated with dead animals, and the predator is often fooled.

Relationship with Humans

Many people don't like opossums simply because they don't know enough about them.  People may see an opossum's teeth and think it is aggressive, or people may think opossums are rodents and therefore pests.  Sometimes dog owners will praise their pet if it kills an opossum.  In reality, opossums won't attack or bite anyone unless provoked, and rarely carry rabies, so they are generally harmless. 

 

Opossums do sometimes enter chicken coops and kill some of the chickens, but this can be prevented by keeping the chickens in a coop that is enclosed on all sides, including the top and bottom.  Keeping your flock safe does not require killing the opossums that enter your yard.

How to Observe Opossums

You may be able to find an opossum in any place within their range that has a lot of trees or tall bushes.  This includes many neighborhoods.  Look for glowing yellow eyes at night, and listen for rustling in the bushes.  If you see an opossum, stand at least eight feet away and quietly watch it.  Using a red bulb in your flashlight may help you observe opossums and other nocturnal animals without them noticing you.