Say Hello to the Newest Neighbor

Two years ago, this creature began showing up at my bird feeders just before sunrise. It is, of course, a Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana): the only marsupial found north of Mexico. Shy and not at all inclined to socialize, it declined most photo sessions, preferring to scoot off into the shrubbery as soon as I appeared.

I wondered for some time about its tail; the white portion shown in the photo extended to its tip, and I wasn’t sure whether injury or disease might have caused it. I didn’t pursue the issue, and didn’t discover the answer until a month ago, when this second opossum came into my life.

Such a cute baby!

The baby was tennis-ball sized when I first noticed it under some bushes. I saw it only once, until last week; doubled in size and far more agile, it had learned to climb up to snack on some peanuts left for the squirrels. With its pink nose and pink toes, it was adorable — and it had the same white tail as my first visitor.

Finally doing some research, I learned a few interesting facts. Our ‘Opossum’ and ‘Possums’ are quite distinct creatures. The Virginia Opossum is found on the North American continent; the Possum is native to Australia, New Guinea, and China, and it has been introduced to New Zealand. Our Opossum has that hairless, rat-like tail which I noticed, while the Possum has a bushy tail much like a squirrel’s.

North American opossums typically have pointed white faces with black eyes; their body fur is coarse and usually dark gray, while the possums of Australia have rounded bodies, softer features, and generally golden or brown fur.

The tendency of North Americans to shorten our creature’s name is widespread; I’ve never heard anyone say “I saw a Virginia Opossum in my yard,” and everyone calls the Virginia Opossum’s defensive maneuver ‘playing possum.’  That said, a Virginia Opossum by any other name is just as cute — unless it’s denying your squirrels their peanuts or gorging on the fruit of your persimmon tree.


Comments always are welcome.

57 thoughts on “Say Hello to the Newest Neighbor

    1. Now, that’s a fine creature — useful as well as cute. I didn’t know they’d eat ticks: perhaps because we have far more mosquitoes and chiggers than ticks.

      1. You are very lucky. The ticks are awful on so many levels. A relatively recent arrival in Maine. When our kids were young, they could play in the woods without worry of ticks. Now, when I come in from gardening, I carefully check myself, and I wear my socks pulled over my leggings to discourage them from creeping up my legs.

  1. Looks just like Mickey Mouse of the 1930s!
    I never knew I should have been calling it an “O”-possum. “O” my!
    Hey, honey, there’s an oppossum in the garage. Nope…can’t do it.

    1. Aren’t those ears something? They pair so well with those round, black eyes. When John James Audubon was writing about the creatures, he always used ‘Opossum,’ but that’s a name that works better in writing than in speech or song.

  2. Pretty cute!

    Love having (O)possums around as they love chowing down on things such as roaches, mice and rats. Also, they strongly motivate the homeowner to practice sanitary garbage practices, such as having trash cans with REALLY tight-fitting lids!

    1. Given the number of ‘Palmetto bugs’ around here, these should be very well fed. And believe me: I’ve learned to keep the birdseed and peanuts properly stored — in metal, not plastic. Of course, if we had raccoons, too, there’d be a need for a chain and padlock as well. I’ve seen what those raccoons can do.

  3. What a great photo and cute little bugger. I had a few Possums at my old house, never knew them by any other name.

    1. The biggest possum I’ve ever seen was ‘playing possum’ one night right by the driver’s side door of my car. I have no idea what scared it, since it already was prone when I showed up, but it certainly gave me a start! They are cute. If the baby stays around here, I might give it a name — either that or name my place ‘Possum Holler.’

    1. There’s another vote for possums as nature’s tick control. I have wondered why I don’t see any mice or rats around the fallen birdseed at my feeders. Those possums may be the answer there, too.

    1. That’s not a problem. The squirrels feed in the daytime, and the possums prowl at night. I’ll see the possums as late as an hour after sunrise, but I have lazy squirrels, and they can’t be bothered to come to the breakfast table until after the possums have gone to bed.

    1. Hmmm… I’ve had a couple of other people who’ve had that problem in the past, but it got resolved for them. The problem is that I can’t remember who it was or how they resolved it. When I have trouble commenting, I usually can solve it by clearing my cache, and then refreshing the page. That seems to take care of it.

      If you invite one possum over, I’ll bet it won’t be long until you have two — or more. I thought I only had one roaming around here, but once the baby appeared, it was pretty clear that a second one was lurking!

  4. I never mind coming across an opossum. I often see one snacking in my compost bin, leftover veggies and fruit and coffee grounds from the day. The babies are darling. I used to volunteer for Austin Wildlife Rescue and they’re so fun to watch. Cute post!

    1. One of the things I learned is that opossums have two sets of teeth. Their baby teeth are absorbed; then, they get their permanent, adult teeth around six months. The baby up above must be less than six months old, because it doesn’t have a full set of teeth. When I noticed the drool on its chin, and saw it ‘smacking’ the peanuts, I watched for a while and discovered the lack of teeth seemed to be making it a messier eater than the adults. But those ears? They’re already full-on cute!

  5. How cute! I have friends who LOVE opossums because they have many redeeming features, unlike (apparently) raccoons who are also cute but a menace.

    1. Well, I’m a great fan of raccoons. Granted, I can tell some nearly unbelievable tales about how smart they are — and yes, occasionally destructive — but sometimes they get tempted into bad behavior by humans who just don’t realize what they’re dealing with! The possums? Cute, quiet, and willing to snack on things we don’t like — what could be better?

  6. Your patience and diligence rewarded by these gorgeous photos! That tail reminds me of a native rat I saw recently, when I was walking lakeside. Must investigate that further.

    1. It was the mention of our opossum’s rat-like tail that finally helped me figure out that the tail comes as standard equipment. I had assumed that it would be covered with hairs, like the body: not so! I tried and tried to get a photo when the baby still was tennis-ball sized, but just couldn’t. The slightest movement set it to scurrying. Now, it’s confident enough that if I’m very, very quiet, and move slowly, it will hang around for a bit.

  7. Your opossum adult and baby look so cute! I must refute your suggestion that possums are native to NZ.. no, no, no. They feast on our native flora, decimating their preferred species, and even eat eggs and chicks of birds including endangered species, and our lovely native giant snails. But they were introduced in the 1800s from Australia, into Southland which is the region just south of me, for the fur trade. If only we could turn back time! Our Dept of Conservation has info on it:

    1. That’s really interesting; thanks for the clarification. So many of the sources I consulted mentioned both Australian and NZ as possum territory that I never thought to explore further. It may be a result of a tendency over here to equate the two countries, when there are a great number of differences. When the first one showed up, I emailed Gary Bolstad, a vet who lives in NZ, to ask about that tail I thought might be a sign of disease. He didn’t say anything about your possums’ invasiveness, but of course we were talking about the North American version, and it may not have crossed his mind.

      I’d never in my life thought of ‘possum’ as part of a fur trade. It wasn’t until I read about the possum/opossum differences that I learned about the possum’s furry tail, and the creature’s use for fur. I can’t imagine anyone using the Virginia opossum for its fur!

      1. Yes, I know Gary via blogging. It’s common here for wool clothing to be merino/possum blend e.g. I have a jersey, hat and gloves that are such a blend – very warm and comfortable.

  8. As opossum, which English borrowed from the Powhatan Algonquian language, is attested from as far back as around 1600, I assume English voyagers picked up the word in North America and later applied it to a different marsupial in Australia, which Captain Cook first reached in 1788. The shortened form possum is now ambiguous because it refers to both kinds of animals.

    From my trips to New Zealand I learned how invasive the possums from Australia have become. It was common in souvenir shops to see items made from possum fur.

    1. It surprised me to learn that the Australian possums have furry tails, like squirrels. I couldn’t help wondering if any drivers in those countries hung possum tails from their mirrors or antenna like people did here with raccoon tails in the 1930’s or so.

      It makes sense that explorers would have carried ‘possum’ from North America to other places. I was curious, and found that Audubon produced his print of the Virginia Opossum around 1845; I didn’t realize he’d done so much work with animals other than birds, or that his last trip to the American West in 1843 was to gather information on them.

  9. Just as cute as our possums here in Australia. I used to see them just after midnight on our apartment building’s side fence back in the time I lived near the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

    1. They’re night creatures, for sure. Once I realized that, I started looking for them much earlier in the morning, and had more success. Learning about your species has been quite a revelation. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever knew that you had possums of any sort.

    1. If we kept the same hours, I might, but they prefer to prowl at night, so I usually only catch sight of them around sunrise, when they’re looking for their bedtime snacks.

  10. Sorry for being the wet blanket here, Linda, but this thing just gives me the heebie-jeebies! I can only shudder at what Monkey would do, should he find a critter like this in his yard!

    1. Truth to tell, Monkey probably would have a hard time finding one of these. I’ve watched this adult when the dog walkers are out, and it seems to evaporate into thin air. The possums don’t want a thing to do with the doggies. What’s funny is watching the squirrels when the possum’s around. They’re curious as can be, but they don’t do anything but watch from a safe distance, and the possum seems to know they aren’t a threat. It’s pretty cool to see, really.

  11. They are cuties! I didn’t realize they could climb into the bird feeder (although I know a raccoon can!) The thing that actually got Gypsy into my house (versus the cat house I had on the porch for him with a little light bulb for heat) was when an ‘possum took it over! I wonder if she had babies, too?!

    1. They’re quite agile. I’ve watched the adult climb straight up a railing, and of course they can cruise through the trees without any difficulty at all. That’s an interesting bit of Gypsy-history. I suppose the possum was ready for a housing upgrade, and that central heat seemed perfect!

  12. The Opossum has taken a leaf from the book of the coyote, the grackle, the fox, and the other generalists that have proliferated in the wake of human settlement. They are opportunistic omnivors and will eat practically anything. They are expert climbers who have raised dumpster diving to a high survival art. They have found a niche in our world and moved right in. I do advise caution, though. Because they do eat carrion, their bites are nasty and very prone to festering, so it is best to let them go their own way, as the song goes.

    1. The good news is that our possums rarely bite. They will, if cornered, but they prefer to run or, in real emergencies, ‘play possum.’ I found this fascinating tidbit online, and it makes perfect sense:

      “When an opossum goes into this comatose state, they also begin to emit a foul odor similar to that of a decaying corpse. Their body secretes this smelly substance from their anus when the comatose reaction is triggered. This putrid smell along with their “dead” state is what really drives the predators away. They don’t just look dead. They smell like they’ve been dead long enough to have started rotting, making them a meal that no self respecting fox or bobcat want to take home for dinner.”

      Such cleverly designed creatures!

  13. Opossums are good to have around as they eat slugs and ticks. As noted they are shy and harmless preferring to run away though they will fight if cornered. We have at least one that lives under the house and it drives Minnie nuts. I let her out in the fenced part of the yard once and she started barking hysterically. When I looked to see what she was barking at it looked all the world like a dead opossum laying there. Seriously, I thought it was dead. Put the dog in the house and went back to deal with the dead critter and it was gone.

    1. What a great story! I’ve only seen one possum ‘playing possum,’ but I would have thought it dead had a friend with more experience not explained what was going on. I can only imagine what Minnie thought. I had no idea that they ate ticks (or slugs, for that matter). That’s a good fact to have handy; it might encourage people who are put off by their appearance to think more kindly of them.

  14. I’ve seen Opossums in the yard on very rare (and generally very dark) occasions, and even had one spend its final moments there. I’m not sure if it had a run in with a raccoon or if there was some other issue. Odd looking critters, in any case.

    1. The are a little odd-looking, but I’ve come to think of them as oddly appealing, too. I think it might be the ears; I can’t help smiling at those. If a predator got yours, a raccoon might be a likely suspect, since they can be fierce at times. Here, we might suspect a coyote — or an unfortunate street-crossing incident.

    1. I’ve learned that they can be very useful, too. They eat ticks and slugs, but they also will take out mice and rats. My birds can be messy eaters, and I do put out some food for the ground feeders, but I’ve not seen mice or rats coming by. Perhaps my possums are helping with that, as well as being cute.

  15. I never knew they were two species! Like you, I just assumed “possums” was a short version of the real name, “opossum!” Both are cute, though….in most circumstances.

    1. I think we can be excused for not knowing about those Australian possums. And, since ‘possum’ is used as a shortened name for both species, we’re covered. I can understand why they fall into the category of “a face only a mother can love” for some people, but I’m rather fond of them, and with that pink nose and pink feet, the baby’s especially cute.

  16. Fascinating! I had no idea about the opossum vs possum differences. I always thought what we had around here (in Virginia) were possums. I also had no idea they were “Virginia” Opposums. Sadly, I most often see these as roadkill. Otherwise they do tend to stay hidden very well.

    Another interesting fact I’ve learned about them is that, despite what I’ve always been told, they are almost completely immmune to the rabies virus because of their low body temperature. So there’s far less risk from one of these getting rabies and passing it on to a human than with something like coyotes, one of which was put down this weekend after attacking multiple people and then a police officer at a local park just north of here.

    1. Even though I know now that ‘ours’ are opossums, I’ll still be calling them ‘possums. It’s easier to say, for one thing, and face it: ‘Opossum Hollow’ just doesn’t have the same ring as ‘Possum Holler.’ I’m trying to remember if I’ve seen possum roadkill, and I don’t believe I have. We specialize in armadillos down here.

      I didn’t know about their immunity to rabies, but sure enough — the few articles I looked at all confirmed exactly what you said. All things considered, they’re among the least harmful and most useful critters around — even if some people don’t think they’re very attractive. I thought the photo in this article was especially interesting; apparently those pink toes are a sign of a youngster.

    1. I know people who shy away from them because they fear diseases (they don’t carry rabies), or a bite (they almost never do). Others think they’re just unattractive, but I think they’re rather cute. It’s the ears I love the most, although those bright little eyes seem not to miss a thing.

  17. Pogo!

    We’ve an Opossum or two that visit the yard and that’s a good thing. They haven’t totally taken out all the ticks but we don’t see many. And we haven’t seen any crop damage from them in the garden so good neighbors.

    1. Pogo, for sure. I thought about including Pogo in a post when I had only the photo of the adult, but I dallied, and once the baby showed up, the real opossums became the highlight. Even though they’re omnivores, I’ve never heard anyone griping about their behavior in the gardens; I suppose they find enough tasty bits elsewhere that they don’t need to spend time nibbling the runner beans.

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