Wilder Side of Oakland County
Breeding season is risky. To find a mate Didelphis virginiana must scurry across open fields, cross busy highways and negotiate tortuous creek banks flanked with slippery ice in a world full of predators. Cars, owls, hawks, raccoons, coyotes, fox and domestic dogs all take their toll. And then, just 12 days after a hastily arranged honeymoon 12 – 20 helpless babies no bigger than honey bees must attempt a difficult fur-clinging climb from the birth canal to the pouch and struggle for the 13 teats as mom waddles about in her solitary ways. If more than 13 are born to this amazing creature with 50 teeth and a prehensile tail they will not survive. This is not a creature of myth. This is the Virginia opossum, a species that thrives close to homes in Oakland County and is found in every Oakland County Park.
Opossums are not ‘big rats’. They are not even rodents. They are marsupials (pouched mammals), and one of their closest cousins is the kangaroo. Opossums have stalked the earth for 70 million years and are the only marsupial found in Michigan. Hollow trees, abandoned woodchuck burrows, the underside of suburban decks or even abandoned dog houses are perfect den sites.
Many suffered from frost bite and others perished in winter; their tails, ears and toes are all furless. But for those that survived until spring, the county transformed into a world of plenty. As omnivores they eat anything they find or can kill; the list is long and includes bugs, beetles, berries, worms, bird eggs, fruits, snakes, frogs and road kill. Road kill consumption is a dangerous practice for when frightened opossums freeze in place or flop over flat adding themselves to the roadside collection of entrees. Although chiefly nocturnal, during the early days of spring warmth they are sometimes seen grubbing about under bird feeders or meandering on still snow covered but sunny trails.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer, Oakland County Parks. www.oakgov.com/parks