Neighborhood Critters – Opossums

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In many parts of the country, opossums are a common sight, but they are also one of the most commonly misunderstood of our wild neighbors.  The opossum is a medium-sized mammal about the size of a house cat, with long guard hairs that give the fur a coarse appearance. It also has naked ears and a long almost hairless prehensile tail.  Sine its tail is prehensile an opossum can use it to grasp and hold objects.

When confronted by a human or another animal an opossum may sometimes open their mouths to display their teeth and may even hiss, but in general they will not fight or display any other aggressive behavior. In fact, these animals are actually quite shy and when confronted will often lapse into a fear driven coma that can last from 40 minutes to 4 hours – this is what we have come to know as “playing possum.”

Opossums are found in a variety of habitats, including many that humans choose to build their homes and businesses on or near. The most common habitat is deciduous woodlands. Opossums are good climbers and will often take shelter during the day in trees in warm weather. In colder weather, ground dens are preferable over trees – this is what often leads an opossum to take up residence under decks and in crawl spaces, where they are often considered unwanted guests. Since opossums are “terrestrial gleaners” – they roam in search of food and move on when a food source is depleted – they do not generally make a home for themselves in one place and stay there. For this reason, an opossum outdoors on your property should not be considered a threat or a nuisance. The most effective method for discouraging visits from opossums is to secure trash containers with tight-fitting lids and pick up food at night if pets are fed outdoors. Occasionally an opossum will find its way into a house through a pet door or open door, in this case they can easily be removed by nudging them gently with a broom back to the open door. Opossums are very slow movers and easy to evict without harming them.

There are a few things all people should know about our wild neighbor the opossum:

    • They are great for “pest control” – common foods in their diet include things such as snails, slugs, beetles, and crickets. They do like some fruit, including grapes and avocados, but only if it is rotting and mushy – they will not pick fruit off a tree.
    • The opossum has hands not paws and can pluck its prey from a plant without damaging a leaf. They do not dig, can’t jump, and they do not turn over trash cans in search of food, although they have been known to fall into them and are not able to get themselves out without human assistance.
    • Opossums will not harm humans and they will not harm your pets. They have been known to get along quite well with cats and if they run into your dog they will most likely play possum.
    • They will walk up to five miles a night in search of food, they are not territorial and will move on when the food is gone.

Perhaps because opossums are somewhat “primitive” looking, they are misunderstood. The next time you see one roaming across your backyard or in a tree in your local park take sometime to appreciate it for the purpose it serves in Nature’s plan.

TM would like to thank El Segundo’s own resident opossum expert, Sylvia Wilkinson, for her insight and assistance with this article!

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