WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
What animal lived during the age of the dinosaurs, gives birth 13 days after a honeymoon, has thumbs on their hind feet and is falsely accused of being, a big ugly rat? If you guessed Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum, you are right. The opossum is the only marsupial found in North America; Oakland County is home for hundreds, if not thousands of these amazing omnivores. The Virginia Opossum has fifty teeth (the most of any mammal) and feeds on almost anything and everything. They will hunt, kill and eat mice and rats and relish rotting road kill and crunchy cockroaches. Bird eggs, berries, beetles, frogs, fish and fruits of all sorts are also on the delicacy list. Don’t forget to add snakes, slugs and snails too. To put it simply, if it produces a scent, the opossum will eat it.
During winter, an overloaded bird-feeder, pet food left outside and exposed trash all scream to the local opossum population, “Come feast!” They accept the invitation and come to dine. Homeowners may think they have acquired the world’s biggest rat when they see opossums at their bird feeders on sunny, winter days. Opossums often feed in daylight hours, for they are very susceptible to extreme cold and frostbite. Many cold-climate opossums have damaged ears and frost nipped tails so it’s safer to bask in a bit of relative warmth rather than to follow their nocturnal ways. Scrounging for food at night during the bitter cold is also dangerous because that’s when coyotes hunt. Before the sun sets each night, these quickly adapting marsupials retreat and curl up in hollow logs, woodchuck dens and under sheds and backyard decks.
Opossums have a pouch in which they carry their honey-bee sized young and are related to kangaroos and other marsupials found in Australia. The opossums that live in the urban and rural areas of Oakland County are descendants of those that not that long ago were found only in southeastern U.S and Central America. In the past century, their range has expanded both west and well north all the way into Michigan. They are excellent climbers and can wrap their long prehensile tails around tree limbs for balance. As nature-savvy first graders know, when threatened, opossums flop over, close their eyes, open their mouth and drool a bit as they play possum. Sometimes it works and the inquisitive coyote or fox walks away, and other times, they end up as dinner. Sadly for opossums, this technique never works when crossing a roadway.
Winter is the perfect season to keep an eye out for opossums under bird feeders and on sunny woodland trails. Their footprints are unmistakable due to the spacing of their toes. Opossums have opposable thumbs on their hind feet which help them grip branches and climb. They are the only non-primates with opposable thumbs. The front paw prints resemble tiny five pointed stars—follow the tracks and the secrets of their travels will be revealed.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Oakland County Parks for information on all 13 Oakland County Parks.
12 thoughts on “The Virginia Opossum: Oakland County’s Mysterious Marsupial”
[…] Hike the snowy trails of Oakland County Parks – or search your own yard – and you may discover a finely crafted bird nest from last spring. It may have a new roof on top, and perhaps be wedged between the branches of a hawthorn tree or found in leafless shrubbery. Many of these nests are not empty. They have been re-purposed by Oakland County’s least heralded, but perhaps most abundant small mammal, the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). White-footed mice, while being masters of winter survival, home-invasions and kitchen-trespassing, also serve another role in the wilds of nature’s way. They are crunchy entrées on the winter menu for the eastern coyote, red and gray fox, screech owls, great horned and barred owls, red-tailed hawks, mink, weasel and even opossums. […]
[…] to this ever-changing oasis of early spring life. Red-shouldered hawks snatch frogs, raccoons and opossums paw for salamanders in the shallows and the occasional coyote or fox wander by to see what all the […]
[…] afar; they quickly get to work cleaning up the edges of countryside roads. Rancid raccoon, putrid possum, squished squirrel and road-killed woodchuck and rabbits are delicious delicacies for Turkey […]
[…] a protein rich and easy meal. A disturbed nesting site quickly attracts crows, skunks and opossums: three predators known to consume whatever they can find. Hatching takes about 80 days, depending […]
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[…] sun-seeking humans, they are hunted by great blue herons, hawks, raccoons, snapping turtles, mink, opossums and skunks. And the newborns have it tough too. They are about eight inches long, just the right […]
[…] on wetlands. The list of creatures that relish this amphibian is long and includes: raccoons, opossums, barred owls, great blue herons, snapping turtles, northern water snakes, bigger bullfrogs and […]
[…] almost exclusively to small mammals including rabbits, mice, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, and opossums. Even Ruffed Grouse and Screech Owls fall prey to this skilled […]
[…] are quickly consumed by a great variety of predators including bullfrogs, milk snakes, raccoons, opossums, snapping turtles, great blue herons, crows, hawks, squirrels, house cats, mink, coyotes, foxes, […]
[…] at times as if our lives are at risk by the very presence of wildlife. Negative comments about opossums, raccoons, deer, wild turkeys and the much maligned Eastern Coyote seem to spread like wildfire as […]
[…] We humans might call it a grin. A grin that drools at times. That pretty much describes the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana), the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in North America. They have adapted to life in our midst […]