The Virginia Opossum — Nature Close to Home


Nature Close to Home and Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Dave Woehr shares monthly naturalist stories.

LEBANON, OH -- Recently I received an email from a neighbor expressing surprise at finding a possum under her backyard bird feeder. It was around 5 pm and darkness was just starting to settle in for another long winter night. There was just enough daylight remaining that she was able to document her claim with a good photo of the critter. 

Even though they are common, it's because possums are nocturnal that we seldom get to see one actively moving about during the daylight hours. Checking back in my notes, I found that it had been about ten years since I had seen one in my backyard.

For many of us, our possum sightings are limited to those that didn’t get out of the way of a car while on their nighttime forages.

The possum is a unique mammal in North America since it is our only marsupial. Growing up as a kid in Pennsylvania, I used to catch possums in box traps I set in the woods along the shore of Lake Erie. Females often had a litter of a half dozen or more babies in their kangaroo-like pouches. The babies were actually cute, a term I have difficulty applying to their mothers.

Adult possums are about the size of a house cat and weigh up to 14 pounds. Imagine something that looks like a 14-pound rat with a toothy grin! They have a natural lifespan of up to three years. They prefer to live where there are stands of mature trees, because they are agile climbers and spend most of the day in woody dens and hollows. Their nights are spent searching for their favorite menu items that include a wide variety of plants, animals, insects, garbage, pet food, carrion, and more. They are omnivorous meaning they will eat almost anything. 

When there is tracking snow on the ground in the winter, you can sometimes tell if a possum has been in the area by the unique print of the hind foot, which exhibits a “thumb” – something not characteristic of other local wildlife. The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is the first mammal of more than 50 species listed in the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s “Mammals of Ohio Field Guide”.

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