Ask The Nature Lady – The Virginia Opossum

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A Virginia Opossum peeks out of one of the author’s wildlife boxes at the edge of her yard.
A Virginia Opossum peeks out of one of the author’s wildlife boxes at the edge of her yard.
A Virginia Opossum peeks out of one of the author’s wildlife boxes at the edge of her yard.

I feel extremely fortunate that I received my degree from Virginia Tech. For a nature lover, such as I am, the campus and the Blacksburg area where Tech is located provided me with plenty of opportunities to observe wildlife.

 I lived a few miles away from the university in a rented trailer that was surrounded by farmland.  One morning when I left for class, I forgot to close my bedroom window.  Much to my surprise (and delight, to be honest with you), when I returned home later that day and walked into the bedroom, I found a momma opossum with her babies clinging to the fur on her back!

 Young opossums accompany their mother in this manner during the final month that they are suckling.  I was absolutely thrilled to get to see such a cute sight.

 But many folks don’t like this mammal because they consider it to be ugly and rat-like in appearance.  Since people tend to be afraid of rats, they are often afraid of opossums.  But there’s really no reason to fear them.

 Virginia Opossums are members of Mother Nature’s cleanup crew.  By recycling dead plants and animals, they help to keep the environment functioning properly.   Unfortunately, this role causes opossums to get run over when they try to feed upon animals that have been hit by traffic.  It saddens me that they get killed as they try to do their job.

 In addition to feeding upon dead plants and animals, opossums eat just about anything that they find, including insects and other invertebrates (animals without a backbone), small birds and mammals, amphibians (such as frogs), eggs, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

 If you drive slowly after dark on back roads, you might spot an opossum and be able to watch its ambling gait as it searches for food.  These nocturnal animals (active mostly at night) make their homes in cities and towns as well as in the countryside.

 A Virginia Opossum has a small brain, which is supposed to be indicative of low intelligence.  But the species does very well, even though an opossum skull can only hold 26 navy beans, as opposed to a Raccoon’s skull that can hold 139.  I never would have thought to measure intelligence with navy beans, but yes, one scientist actually did this!

Naturalist Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at www.marlenecondon.com)If you have a question about plants or animals, or gardening in a nature-friendly manner, send it to [email protected] and please watch for an answer in this paper.