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July 10, 2012 > Pat Kite's Garden: Observing Opossum

Pat Kite's Garden: Observing Opossum

By Pat Kite

The opossum sat and stared at us through the sliding glass door. Its eyes were dancing and its nose twitching with excitement. My daughter and I sat on the other side of the door, our eyes dancing and noses twitching with excitement. While we are used to opossums scooting along fence lines at twilight, I had never seen an opossum just sitting there looking at me... never.

We did this viewing for about 15 minutes. When we left for a chore, the possum also left. Perhaps my life isn't exactly thrilling, but that was the most glorious thing that happened to me the entire week! The Virginia or Common Opossum is the only marsupial species found in the United States. Marsupial means it shelters and feeds its babies within a pouch, like a kangaroo. Since a female Opossum is only about 15 inches long, and weighs only about 10 pounds, how many babies can it carry within? Seven to 20, but each is only the size of a bumblebee.

When the young get to about three months old, they often take rides around on Mom's back while she tells them the rules in this sometimes-difficult possum world. When scared, baby opossums make a sneezing noise to signal their mother. Fewer than half of them survive. The adult opossum, when cornered, can fuss a lot and look scary. But it is not very good at defending itself. You may have heard the term "playing possum." Relatively defenseless otherwise, a terrified possum faints, so it seems like it is dead. It curls up and becomes stiff. Its eyes close. It gives off a stinky smell, like a dead thing. Predators that prefer live prey may leave it alone.

It takes the opossum one to four hours to regain consciousness. Those that survive enemies may visit your garden. Opossums are gourmands, they eat most anything. This includes road kill, tired fruit, garbage and pet food. They also eat insects, frogs, snakes, snails, slugs, mice and roof rats. The word opossum comes from the Virginia Algonquian (Powhattan) language in the form of aposoum, meaning "white beast/animal."

Opossum ancestors lived alongside some dinosaurs, 70 million years ago. There is a fun Native American opossum legend. Seems long ago, the Opossum had a fancy furry white tail, but wanted a brown one. Raccoon said to brown it in a fire. This, of course, burnt all the hair off. And that is why Opossums have a naked tail.

Anyhow, if you think Opossums are kind of cute, there is actually a National Opossum Society. Membership is $25 a year. Membership forms available online, or by writing National Opossum Society, PO Box 21197, Catonsville, MD 21228.

This makes me happy; I guess it doesn't take much.

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