OH! Opossum!

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February brings thoughts of love, so this post gives some adoration to an often misunderstood creature. Come meet my recent “visitor”!

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Recently, we had a breach in “Foul Knox”, our chicken run. It was a not-too-cold evening, and we were taking our dogs out before heading to bed. Odin, our large brindle hound, started “pointing” at the hen house. Something was inside the run! We put the dogs inside and grabbed a flashlight, fearing a raccoon or fox had infiltrated the coop. However, inside the run was the cutest, fluffiest, round fuzzy opossum

I wasn’t too concerned for my chickens; I’d locked up the henhouse earlier. The visitor was small and young. It wasn’t fearful of us, but more interested, or curious. 

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It peeked out from behind the waterer, then scaled the back fence, a very agile climber. It looked a bit confused, like it wasn’t sure how to get back out or why we were there.

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I keep a small radio playing inside the run, the idea that the sound of voices keep predators away. I’ve often wondered how the channel changes overnight when I return in the morning to open the henhouse. Mystery solved – the opossum decided to lounge across the radio awhile, changing the channel from the “lite” station when it climbed on top. Maybe I should switch to heavy metal! 

Apparently, my visitor is a Debbie Gibson fan.

Apparently, my visitor is a Debbie Gibson fan.

We left the big gate open, checking often to see if the opossum had left. When we returned, it walked over, climbing the inside of the front fence. It never showed its teeth or hissed. (We were always on the other side of the fence, at a safe distance).

OH! That face...so cute.

OH! That face…so cute.

It was so fuzzy, with thick soft-looking grey fur, an adorable face with a pink button nose, and cute little ears and paws with opposable thumbs. I was smitten. 

“It’s so FLUFFY!!!”

“It’s so FLUFFY!!!”

The next morning, our furry friend had departed. I was shocked by how many people don’t like opossums, suggesting it should be trapped or killed, that it’d kill my chickens, carried rabies, or was an overgrown rodent. I decided to find out the true facts.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

Stephanie Safarik, a well-known wildlife rehabilitator, is an angel for opossums. She had always worked with animals, and wanted to be a vet, but her life changed course. Seven years ago, she says her health “failed miserably, with a perfect storm of disaster”. With a cancer diagnosis and facing several surgeries, life was going to be at a slower pace for awhile. She’d always wanted to be a wildlife rehabber, so she decided to see what was needed to follow that dream, thinking, “Maybe while I’m in recovery, a couple animals can be rehabilitated, too”. Through the Connecticut DEEP, she took the course, received veterinarian backing, mentored with an experienced rehabilitator, completed the needed state application to work with wildlife, and created a haven for sheltering animals to recover. She didn’t expect to become the “opossum person”, but is thrilled to give a voice to these docile, often misunderstood creatures. Stephanie says nowadays her health’s not completely ideal, but is much better, crediting the opossums she saved with her improvement. They pushed her- when she wanted to stop she couldn’t because she had little lives depending on her. First working with three baby opossums whose mom was hit by a car, Stephanie has now saved a few hundred opossums. 

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Sefarik

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Safarik

While there are 100 opossum species worldwide, in the USA, we have the Virginia Opossum. Opossums are not rodents, but the only marsupials found in North America, carrying their babies in a fur-lined pouch. Calling these critters “possum” is also a misnomer; a “possum” is an animal of a different species found in Australia. 

Stephanie says opossums will try to avoid people at all costs. Opossums are often mistakenly blamed for the havoc that clever raccoons wreak. Our visitor probably came before, as opossums tend to keep to a “routine”.

“Why,  what a big mouth you have...” Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

“Why, what a big mouth you have…”
Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

While they have large mouths with fifty sharp teeth, they rarely kill prey like chickens, unless they’re starving. They prefer “easy” meals, such as eggs and dropped, rotting fruit from trees. They don’t kill for sport. When wildlife comes into our yards, we shouldn’t be upset; it’s our responsibility to protect our domestic animals. I’m actually grateful having learned that my chicken run had a weak spot.

Opossums are the “waste management” of nature, keeping “rot” down by eating dropped fruit or carnage. They’re also the only truly “natural” defense against ticks. My whole family, including one of our dogs, has been affected by tick-borne illness. Opossums are cat-like in that they groom themselves often (why our visitor was so fluffy)! Because they’re low, with their little tummies touching the ground when they walk, they’re “tick magnets”. They then ingest hundreds of ticks (part of their nutrition) when grooming, thus keeping Lyme disease down. They also eat mice, rats and insects such as beetles. 

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An opossum prefers to flee than to fight. They’ll defend themselves if cornered, hissing, showing the fifty teeth in their big mouths, and releasing an odor (like a dog’s anal gland odor). Finally, they’ll “play dead”, actually an involuntary action. The frightened opossum will fall over in a comatose state, like in shock; its heart rate goes down, and it mimics the scent of a dead animal. This can last for an hour. 

Opossums rarely get rabies. In Connecticut, they’re not even considered a rabies vector, as a healthy opossum’s normal body temperature is actually too low for rabies to breed. For an opossum to contract rabies, it has to be a “perfect storm”: they must be sick with a fever to raise their body temp, be attacked by a rabid animal, and then survive said attack. 

Opossums, however,  unfortunately do not have long lives; males live an average natural lifespan of two years, and females two to four. A full-grown opossum reaches 7 – 8 pounds.

Though it’s speculated they’ve been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth, these little “underdogs” were not meant for cold conditions, even though they can be found as far North as Canada.

These feet are not meant for winter! Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

These feet are not meant for winter!
Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

Often developing  frostbite on their hairless tails, paws, and paper-thin ears, many opossums die in winter, especially if under five pounds. Others are hit by cars or attacked by larger animals.

A poor frost bitten nose... Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

A poor frost bitten nose…
Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

 

Ouch! Frostbitten paw. Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

Ouch! Frostbitten paw.
Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

How do you know if you need to call a professional wildlife rehabber like Stephanie? If an opossum is orphaned, sick, injured, or has flies buzzing around it, call a wildlife rehabilitator. If an opossum is circling, it may have head trauma from being clipped by a car. 

Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

An opossum has 13 nipples inside her pouch, and can give birth up to 20 babies at a time, though not all usually survive.

“New” babies, or “pinkies” Photo courtesy of Stephanie Sefarik

“New” babies, or “pinkies”
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Safarik

Warm and safe in Mama’s Pouch.  Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

Warm and safe in Mama’s Pouch.
Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

Found babies, or babies whose mama has passed (they can live up to a day and a half in the pouch after the death of the mom) always need a rehabber. While they’re good mamas, they won’t come back for a baby the way a mama squirrel will. With so many babies riding on her back, Mama Opossum may not even realize she’s dropped one! 

”Motherhood can be exhausting!” Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

Motherhood can be exhausting!”
Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

A spotted opossum, like most wildlife, really just wants to be left alone and do you no harm. If you do see one, let it be.  “Cat shelters” can provide a warm place for them to avoid frostbite, and leaving scrap fruit or veggies out, especially in winter, is okay. They need lots of calcium, so hard boiled eggs with the shell on, cut in half are a great snack, too. 

*** Follow Stephanie and her sweet rescues on Facebook at Persevering for Wildlife.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Sefarik

Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

As for our little visitor, we see an opossum every once in awhile in the driveway, though not since our last encounter. I hope we see “Radio” again soon.

Wishing everyone a very Happy Valentine’s Day! Drop by again for the next Suburban Farmgirl Blog, “live” March 17th.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

Please remember to leave a comment below so we know you dropped by! Photo courtesy Stephanie Safarik

Until Next Time…Farmgirl Hugs,

Nicole

 

 

 

Leave a comment 55 Comments

  1. Carol says:

    My husband hates these animals and he swears that they will kill chickens. I truly don’t know, but they are interesting animals.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Carol, They could, but really would only if starving with nothing else to eat. They are looking more for “easy” meals, such as the greens that were left over by the chickens in the run, dropped fruit from fruit trees, carnage from roadkill- that kind of thing. When a clever young hawk got my girls, I was sad, but didn’t hate the hawk; he was doing as nature intended. It is my responsibility to protect my domestic animals. As for chickens, opossums are also not like, for example,the Fisher cat (which we have here in CT). Unlike fisher cats, opossums do not kill for sport. Thanks for reading and commenting! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  2. Margaret Eclkes says:

    I think the opossum is very cute. I’m glad some one is watching over them. Thank you for wonderful story.

  3. Anne Temple says:

    Loved the article on opossums! I always say “It’s a good day when you learn something new”. :)

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Thank you so much, Anne! That is a great saying! Glad you stopped by the blog; hope you visit again. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  4. Barbara Trainor says:

    I really learned a lot. It’s always good to know what to do should you find a little possum in need.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Barbara, thank you. I learned so much writing about them, as well. I am a super fan of them now. We have lived here in about 25 years or so and have seen them a few times. I didn’t realize how adorable they truly are until I was face to face with “Radio”! Thanks for reading and commenting. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  5. Debbie says:

    I absolutely adored this blog, especially the pictures.

  6. Jayne says:

    I have always loved opossums, don’t understand why more people don’t know this. Wonderful animals

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Jayne, right? I think maybe some people mistakenly believe that opossums are rodents, which of course isn’t true. Thanks for stopping by the blog! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  7. Nancy Wilson says:

    What a great story! Loved reading ! I had heard that they were great “ tick eliminators “ and I am delighted to read that. Protect our wildlife!
    Thanks!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Nancy, thank you…I am so glad you enjoyed the blog post. I did not know until I wrote this how really beneficial they are for keeping the tick population down, and after “meeting” my little visitor, I am an opossum fan. Thanks for reading and commenting! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  8. Elizabeth says:

    We have opossum in my neighborhood but I never knew much about them. Thank you for the education; I see them in a whole new light!

  9. Catherine says:

    Enjoyable article about opossums. Local rehabbers can be found at:
    animalhelpnow.org.

  10. Denise says:

    so appropriate for you to talk about opossums, I just had a blink camera installed facing my back deck and guess who was the first visitor?? yes, an opossum! I was thrilled since we have a lot of ticks in Tennessee. So he/she is welcome any time in my back yard!!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Denise, Oh how fun! That is great that you know you have a little opossum visitor! Thank you for reading, commenting, and welcoming opossums! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  11. Heidi says:

    I want to knit wee sweaters for your visiting friend!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Heidi- YES! And I have seen links for knitting Koala mittens, too! Come on over, Farmgirl and bring your needles! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  12. Pat Neudorf says:

    Loved your article and pictures – I live a couple hundred miles north of the border – so likely won’t encounter one of your little creatures – a bit too cold here! Thanks for the enlightening read!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Pat, thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the blog, and hope you will “stop by again” Stay warm and cozy! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  13. Sandi King says:

    Thank you Nicole for this article on opossums. It is good to know as much as we can about our fellow earthlings who we share a world with; and does everyone know that God created the animals first, and Adam last to take care of them? I am glad to know all this about opossums and I feel sorry for those I see that get hit by cars. I didn’t know they mostly have a short life span. Could be why the female has so many babies at once. I haven’t seen any around my area lately, but if I do, I will be happy to leave food for them. I did know they are a great tick terminator, deer probably appreciate that fact too. It is just great to know that there is a reason for every insect and animal on earth, even if we don’t know the reason for them. A perfect plan.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Sandi, great comment, thank you so much. It makes me sad to see them hit by cars, too, but it makes me happy to know that the ones that do survive have someone like Stephanie to take care of them! We do not spray our yard, and I wonder if we have had less ticks because we have had opossum visitors. :) Thanks for reading and commenting. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  14. Linda says:

    Oh, how precious! I pick up Crown Royal whiskey bags and wash them for our local wildlife rehabilitation, Wild at Heart. They use these for pouches for the wee ones they rehab during ‘baby’ season.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Linda, Aren’t they precious? I just giggle every time I think of seeing little “Radio”s pink nose! I hope he or she did okay with the cold snap we had. I put out some pineapple near the woods one day. It sat a few days then one day was gone! Love that Wild at Heart use the whisky bags like that – repurposing and helping these precious little animals! Thanks for reading and commenting. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  15. Gail Larson says:

    Very interesting and informative. They are so cute. Wonderful there is help for them. Thank you for sharing!
    Happy valentines Day.❤

  16. Kim says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I worked at Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University for many many years. This is one of the best articles oppossums that I have read. They don’t vector rabies, are very much misunderstood, and they are So cute.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Kim, Oh thank you so much! I am so glad that you enjoyed the article. I don’t get why so many people do not understand how awesome they are! Great little creatures! Thank you so much for your comment! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  17. Nancy G says:

    Thank you for addressing this! So many misinformed people that refuse to educate themselves about these beautiful creatures. I have a heated shelter set up for them and feed them year round. They have issues with calcium. They love cooked chicken, yogurt, cheese, and fruit, and a few other things. I can’t get the ones that I feed to eat vegetables! I had chickens and grew up on a farm, not once did we lose a chicken to a opossum, maybe a few eggs, but not enough to break the bank. I am so grateful that there are rehabbers for opossums, I am no longer in a position because of my health to rehab, I rehabbed birds years ago though, maybe my health will improve and I can do the schooling, etc. required to rehab these beautiful babies. Again, it is a breath of fresh air that you posted this to educate and bring attention to the opossums.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Nancy, what a nice comment to read this morning! Thank you. I am so glad you like this post, and a big thank you for what you do for opossums in your area! Hard boiled eggs, with the shell on and cut in half, are great treats for opossums, and aid with their calcium. Also, best of wishes to you as your health improves! Thank you for reading and writing a comment; hope you stop by and “visit” again. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  18. Jacqueline Galluze says:

    I loved the article. Do they dig in the grass & rip up the turf?

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Jacqueline, from what I know, not really. If you find something digging, it is more likely skunk. However, I have put in that question to Stephanie, the opossum expert. I will get back to you with her answer as soon as I hear back. Good question. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

      • Nicole Christensen says:

        Okay, so I heard back officially from Stephanie. Opossums do not dig up yards and turf. They DO eat bugs but do NOT dig for them. In fact, their nails are super easy to rip out, so they aren’t good diggers whatsoever. If something is digging the yard, it is something else. Great question, Jacqueline! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  19. Donna says:

    We had opossums but I have a Jack Russel terrier..nothing can live here if she can catch it..she has killed 4 so far this year. I would like to keep these tick magnets around..as I live in Pennsylvania. I love my dog and this is their nature. We just had a rabid coyote down the road from us that has attacked people & dogs..it was shot..but people get very paranoid about wild animal.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Donna, I used to have a Jack Russell terrier. She was a great little dog, so spunky! She once got a hold of a wood rat. I swear the thing was as big or bigger than she was, but man, that rat didn’t stand a chance! I am fearful of the coyotes. We have them behind the house and in our yard often, and I worry with my dogs. Thanks for reading and commenting! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  20. Jeannette says:

    Well I guess I knew more about opossums than I thought i did, but I didn’t know that they have 13 nipples, are so easily frostbitten, had such short little lives, nor that they shouldn’t be called possums, so thank your informative and picture rich article.
    I do know, from experience that they are not chicken predators. Opossums that made it into our henhouse in days of old were known to consume as many eggs as possible and then schooch over a hen or two and sleep it off comfy and curled up a nest. My husband found one so digestively busy he carried it out by the tail and walked it a half mile down the drive. This dislocation likely didn’t last long, but gave us time to tighten up the coop.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Jeannette, LOVE your comment…the story about the henhouse and the opossum, what a great one, and I love that you can attest to them not harming the chickens. I don’t remember where I saw it, but there was a photo somewhere on Facebook of an opossum who had broken into a bakery. He ate so many goodies, he was so fat and happy he couldn’t move! They are funny little creatures. Our late night Foul Knox visitor gave us a wonderful memory. (Although now every time I hear Debbie Gibson, I think of opossums, lol)! Oh, also, opossums are the only animal with an uneven 13 nipples. Funny fact. Thanks for reading and sharing! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  21. Judy From Maine says:

    Loved this blog, thanks for such an informative one. Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours.

  22. Gaye Durst says:

    I admire these creatures now, but before I knew how valuable they are, we use to chase em away, being a city girl, having seen several over the years, but not enough to understand their value and place. Once when I had littles, we were coming home one evening I hear this screaming at me, and see one reard up on it’s hind legs. She had taken up residence under our porch, no babies, but I think pregnant. Well we had littles and she was being protective so, it took us a few days to come up with the idea to lead her down the alley with hot dogs to the park, (not the playground) we weren’t sure if she’d come back for more! We kept the gate more secure after that so we never did find that out.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Gaye, oh wow! I bet that was a sight! It’s good you lured her out since she felt protective and you had little ones. I can just imagine her picking up the trail of hot dogs! Love it. Thanks for sharing! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  23. Deni Payne says:

    Oh, those pictures!–I’ve saved about five of the ones of the tiny babies to my computer; they are simply too cute for words! Thanks for sharing!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Deni, thank you. Some of them are mine, and many are from Stephanie. A big thank you to her for sharing them. They just warm my heart! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  24. Sharon Wegmeyer says:

    Thank you for this info! We have just moved (October) from in-town corner lot to our newly constructed farm-style home (smaller/simpler) on 10 acres. Not sure we will see opossums, but if we do I will know they just need some loving!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Sharon, if you are on ten acres, I bet you have some! But in 25 years on my property, I have only seen them a handful of times. They prefer not to be seen. 😉 I love them! Thanks for reading and commenting! Congrats on your move. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  25. Marlene C says:

    Hi. By far one of the best posts you’ve ever done. Thanks for all the info. Dang they’re cute.

  26. One word – TICKS!!! Opossums eat thousands of ticks and for that alone they should be loved! In my area here in Amish country in Lancaster county we are inundated with ticks and Lyme disease so they are especially helpful.

    I love their silvery fur and how slowly they move. They adore sweets and fruit and such.
    I have a really big one and a youngster too who come to my front porch where I feed all the animals and birds.

    Embrace all the goodness these shy animals give .

    Thanks for you lovely and enlightening post.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Lisa, Thank you for you for reading and commenting! I used to live in your beautiful area a short time. I love Lancaster county, though I have not been back to visit in some fifteen years. We too, have a terrible time here in Connecticut with tick borne illnesses, and opossums are the only truly “natural” tick control. Thank you for helping the opossums in your area! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  27. Reyna Chavez says:

    Thank you for that piece! Very interesting info. Will be kind to them if we see them around.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Reyna, thank you! This has been one of my most favorite articles I have written. That little opossum made me a fan of them, for sure! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

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