Opossums are the largest order of marsupial in the Western Hemisphere with 103 species in 19 genera. The Americas are home to two of these genera: Virginia opossum and the common opossum.
You won’t find either of them in desert or barren areas as they like to hide. They have no natural defense against predators even though they can “play dead” and excrete a horrible smell from their anal glands.
These creatures look like large rats with coarse gray hair, prehensile hairless tails, beady eyes, and a mouth full of 50 teeth. They are marsupials, meaning, they give birth to live babies and have pouches.
In this article, we will be mostly discussing the Virginia possum. They live in areas from southern Canada to the U.S border with Mexico.
Opossums will live 2-4 years depending upon where they reside. They mate twice a year. The male is generally called a Jack, and the female goes by the name Jill.
Being marsupials, their young are referred to as Joeys.
The female gestates for two weeks before giving birth to about two dozen opossum babies. The little ones have to find their way into mom’s pouch where she only has a dozen teats.
Between this and predators like snakes, only about a dozen survive.
The joeys remain in the pouch for two months and will remain with mom until they’re five months old. Now, they’re fully capable of fending for themselves.
Opossum vs Possum
While this does have something to do with how people pronounce, and spell, the word according to where they live, it also relates to two different families of opossum.
The word opossum has been traced back to 1610, and the word possum to 1613. Regional dialects determine if the “o” is pronounced and added to the word “possum” or not.
People in the southern portions of the United States tend to drop the “o” while their northern brethren use the “o”.
In addition, opossum refers to all species of opossum living in the Americas.
Possum refers to the Australian marsupial which resembles the opossum and refers to all species of this animal living in Australia.
The Possum was given its name by traders to Australia from the Americas.
Benefits of Possums
Opossums are part of nature’s cleanup crew. They prefer food that’s on the ground and easy to get. This means they get rid of anything rotten or overripe, including bones.
They also get rid of pests like venomous snakes, snails and slugs, rodents, beetles, and other insects that could infest a garden. It’s their preference for eating things most others won’t that makes them beneficial for a garden.
Unlike deer and small rodents, they won’t go after your lovely fruits and veggies while they’re growing and ripening.
They’ll wait until they’re no longer edible and then, they get rid of them before rot creates diseases that could destroy the future of the garden or make people/pets ill.
What Do Opossums Eat?
The opossum diet may include the following:
- Dangerous insects, especially disease-carrying ticks. The Virginia opossum can eat up to 5,000 ticks in a single season.
- Snakes including the venomous kinds. Their bodies are resistant to the toxins, and it’s been noted opossums and some species of snake seem to be competing for who is the better predator since they prey on each other.
- Overripe fruit. If it’s on the ground, it’s fair game.
- Spoiled vegetables. The softer and more rotted, the better they like it.
- Carrion including road-kill. They require large amounts of calcium so they will even eat the bones.
- Outdoor pet food. They don’t care if it’s for dogs or cats, wet or dry.
- They’re as bad as raccoons about getting into unsecured garbage cans.
- These are more like cereal grains that have rotted than actual grass.
- They only eat those they find on the ground and are rotten.
- They won’t go after hanging bird feeders or any they have to climb to reach, but if it’s on the ground, they’ll be happy to clean it up.
- Small rodents. This includes eating mice that are beneficial to farmers and gardeners alike.
- Worms. There is no list for what kinds of worms opossums eat.
- Slugs and snails. Another opossum habit that benefits gardeners.
- Small amphibians like frogs. Frogs will also eat the newborn joeys if they find them.
- Bird eggs and bird young. Like snakes, opossums and birds of prey hunt each other. The only difference is, opossums will only eat the eggs and bird young if they’re on the ground.
- Do possums eat chickens? Yes. They will enter chicken coops to get untended young ones and eggs.
- In extreme circumstances, they eat each other. Yes, they do have cannibalistic tendencies and will more likely eat the young before another adult. This only happens when food is scarce.
Where Do Possums Sleep?
Opossums are nomadic, solitary wanderers who don’t hibernate.
They use the burrows that have been abandoned by other animals, as well as sleeping in hidden and secure areas as their habitat.
These include hollow branches, hollow trees, under your porch, in your garage, crevices, and even caves made under stones, soil, and leaf litter.
- Snakes – eat the baby opossums
- Dogs – they will injure or even kill opossums, but not necessarily eat them.
- Fox – foxes will eat rodents of all kinds but the slow-moving opossum seems to be a favorite
- People – those living in the southern states of the U.S. did consider opossum a good source of meat.
- Birds of Prey – this includes eagles, falcons, owls, and ospreys
- Coyote – another that favors the slow-moving rodent as ideal prey
- Feral cats – they may or may not eat the opossum
- Wild cats – finds them ideal prey as well
- Raccoons – they may or may not eat the opossum
Do Possums Carry Diseases?
Opossums themselves don’t carry diseases, but they do carry fleas and lice which may cause them.
As you can see, these are some very misunderstood animals who should be left alone to do their job as nature’s janitor. They have a very important job to do.