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.
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.