I was startled yesterday when I looked out the window and saw an opossum underneath the bird feeder. Although it was just after 4pm it was still early to see the little critter. I suppose the unusual weather has affected the habits of all the animals and certainly left them hungry.
I realized as I watched her eat that I knew very little about these creatures except that I find them generally rather repulsive, an opinion probably shared by many women. Anything that looks like a big rat is bound to be on the bottom of our “cute and cuddly” list. But if you keep an open mind and read more about them, you may find yourself much more appreciative of their position in the natural scheme of things. I certainly have a higher opinion of them after reading a few facts.
First of all they eat rats! And mice and snails and insects and dead animals. They will even eat a small snake! They also like vegetables and fruits and dog food. They are the clean-up crew for nearly anything left on the ground. They are not territorial and simply stay where there is food and move on when it is gone.
Opossums are resistant to disease and are less likely to carry rabies than your cat or dog. They are also nearly immune to snake bite. They are however frequently killed by dogs, cats, owls, coyotes, and cars. Although they have more teeth (50) than any other mammal, they are quite timid and run or play dead if confronted. Most opossums only live 2-4 years.
Research has proven the opossum to be as intelligent as a dog and perhaps even closer to a pig. Fossil remains verify them as companions of the dinosaurs. Captain John Smith described the opossum as having the head of a swine, tail of a rat, and size of a cat. The name comes from an Indian word meaning “white animal”, although they vary in color from light gray to black.
That long rat-like tail helps the opossum balance when it is climbing trees. Its climbing efforts are also aided by the opposable thumbs on its rear feet. However, the opossum weighs too much to actually hang by its tail for very long. And it does not sleep hanging from a tree limb. Nor does it hibernate.
Opossums are marsupials and the females have a pouch where they carry their young. They give birth quickly- gestation is a mere 12-14 days, and the babies are the size of large bees. While they may have up to 20 babies, the average is around 8. Many fail to survive the first day. Those that do survive will stay in the pouch for a couple of months and then spend another four to six weeks clinging to their mother’s back. Opossums have two or three litters per year.
So…even though the term “big ugly rat” pops into my brain each time I see one, the next time one graces our yard I’ll try to remember that it is cleaning for me and I should be thankful!