Virginia Opossum, Didelphis virginianus

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

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

HABITAT/RANGE: Areas with trees and tall bushes, including neighborhoods.  Their range includes the east and west coasts of the US, and northern Mexico.

WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB: Neighborhoods.

CONSERVATION STATUS: Least concern.

Virginia opossums are common backyard mammals the size of housecats, and the only marsupials (pouched animals) in the US.  They spend a lot of their time climbing trees, fences, and overgrown hedges in search of food and as a safe way of traveling.  In the spring, you may even see a mother carrying her young on her back!

Appearance

Opossums resemble cat-sized rats, although in reality 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 pointed and not adapted for gnawing.

Possum or Opossum?

Scientifically, "possum" refers to a group of Australian marsupials, and "opossum" is the critter you'll find in Santa Barbara. However, many people call the opossum "possum" for short.

Ecological Roles

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, slugs, snails, 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. 

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.  Their nests are often located in tree cavities, overgrown hedges, or the abandoned dens of other animals. 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.

 

When opossums are in imminent danger, they may faint and "play dead" as a defense mechanism, since many of their predators only hunt and eat living animals.  They even have glands that secrete a substance that smells like a dead animal, to further fool their attackers.

Coexisting with Opossums

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 consider opossums pests because they look like rodents.  In reality, opossums are generally harmless and even beneficial to have around.  Did you know...

  • Opossums won't attack or bite unless provoked.  They prefer to keep their distance from people.

  • Opossums are unlikely to carry rabies, because they have a lower body temperature than other animals like skunks and raccoons, and this causes less than ideal conditions for the virus.

  • Opossums act as natural pest control.  Slugs, snails, and ticks are among their favorite foods.  They also sometimes prey on rodents and even poisonous snakes.

  • It's true that opossums are a common predator of backyard chickens, but this can be prevented with a secure coop, so you can share your yard with both chickens and opossums in peace.

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.