Bob and I always keep a keen eye on the goings and comings in our backyard. There is constant activity centered around the bird feeders. If it isn’t squirrels that have outsmarted our most recent positioning of the feeding stations, it is the delightful array of birds sparring for feeding rights that entertain us. What a shock when one day Bob was walking to the garden house and spotted a new little critter under the arbour seat. A Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) sat huddled in the shadows hoping to avoid detection.
It was an overcast day which explained why the Opossum would be foraging in the middle of the afternoon. They are primarily nocturnal animals and so are seldom seen. In fact, I had noticed scat beneath my nyjer feeder over the course of the fall, and wondered what could be generating it. We do have the occasional raccoon visit our backyard, but the scat did not resemble that of a raccoon.
The little Opossum was fearful of Bob and me so turned to the cover of some lawn furniture near my potting bench. We had a good view of its bristly-looking grey fur and long, naked pink tail, one of an opossum’s most easily recognizable traits.
The Opossum peaked cautiously at us with its shiny black eyes. Opossums have become more common throughout southern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area over the past couple of decades. They are animals native to the southeastern United States, but with the effects of global warming, these marsupials have gradually expanded their territory northward. Even as recently as 1996, the opossum’s territory was not shown to include Ontario in the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mammals.
Bob and I were smitten with the endearing little animal, and left alone, it finally was brave enough to return to the base of the bird feeder. That is when we realized that there were two opossums! They were devouring the birdseed that lay uneaten on the ground, which explained the accumulation of scat beneath my nyjer feeder earlier in the fall. Opossums are omnivores and very opportunistic so they will eagerly consume insects, rats, mice, roadkill, snakes, snails and slugs, but also fruit and seeds…hence the attraction to our property. I was beginning to think that they might be good to have around if for no other reason than pest control. One concern I have, however, is that they also eat young birds and birds’ eggs.
When this young opossum appeared to be washing its face like a cat, I was consumed with adoration. The animal was about one foot long, not including the tail, and its adorable pink nose and toes, in addition to its pink-tipped ears, gave the animal an innocent and vulnerable appearance. In fact, the tender little ears are hairless, and like their other extremities are susceptible to frostbite during Canadian winters.
Opossums have a real mouthful of teeth, in fact 50 very pointy teeth that come in handy when trying to scare off predators. Although opossums rarely if ever bite people, they bare their impressive fangs and snarl as a means of defense, or “play possum” which entails rolling over and playing dead. Bob and I knew that these two opossums were young judging by their size, but also because the one hid from us trembling with fright rather than its body having the involuntary physiological response of “playing possum”.
We had the opportunity later that same day to see one adult opossum, likewise foraging for seeds beneath the arbour, and it was substantially bigger than the other two. Because it was dark, we were unable to get a picture of it hesitating to use the camera’s flash in case it might harm the creature’s eyes. Opossums can grow to be the size of a large house cat, but even at that, people sometimes mistake them for rats because of their bare, scaly tail and long, whiskery snouts. Others in the know regard them as harmless and beneficial because they deter pests and clean up carrion.
Bob and I guessed that the adult opossum was likely the mother keeping an eye on her offspring. As I mentioned, opossums are marsupials, which means that they have a pouch like a kangaroo. Newborn babies are reared in the pouch until they are able to cling to the mother’s back. The two young in our backyard were beyond that stage. Virginia Opossums are the only marsupials in North America outside of Mexico.
We were perpetually looking out our windows for further sightings of the opossums. The weather had turned mild so they should continue to be out and about, but once the mercury drops again, they will likely seek shelter in a makeshift burrow or some other dark, secure area. Opossums normally inhabit treetops since they are very adept at climbing. Their sharp claws assist with that as well as their prehensile tails that are used for stability when negotiating tree limbs.
Although there is a common myth suggesting that opossums like to hang by their tails when sleeping, this is a fallacy. They may hang from their tails briefly, but their tails lack the strength to hold up their body weight for any length of time. Their tails are, however, thought to be equivalent to a fifth appendage as they are often used to grip and carry materials such as clumps of grass.
Opossums are typically nomadic…only remaining in an area while food and water is readily available…so it is hard to say how long our backyard will be their playground. Several days passed with no sign of the animals, before we were once again lucky enough to catch sight of one of the young. For the time being, the young opossums seem content to eat apples that have fallen from our crab apple tree and green onion tops.
So, while our backyard offers an open invitation to songbirds and the occasional cottontail rabbit, raccoons beware! A new scavenger is in town.