Backyard visitors: Meet the opossum, nature's omnivore
Occasionally, over the years, one of my dogs will bring back an opossum he has subdued. The poor thing looks dead. It lays on its side with a toothy grin frozen on its face. When I say toothy, I mean it. With 50 teeth, the Virginia opossum has more teeth than any other local creature that goes bump in the night.
When I see it plain' possum, I can't help but recall my favorite Granny ... Granny Clampett (from "The Beverly Hillbillies"). Remember her recipes for possum? Keep in mind, it wasn't just TV's comical Clampetts enjoying this Southern dish. I came across a photograph of then-Governor Franklin Roosevelt setting down to a meal of opossum and sweet potatoes at a dinner hosted by the Atlanta Association of Building Owners and Managers.
At first glance, eating a possum seems tantamount to eating a big rat. Of course, a rat is a rodent while a possum is a marsupial. Probably, the first marsupial ever encountered by early European explorers. The possum's pouch, as you might expect, was a source of great fascination.
The first pictorial representation of the opossum (by European cultures) can be found near the words "terra nova" (New World) in a corner of a 1516 world map. Its caption reads, "There is shown in this picture this animal which has a receptacle under its belly in which it carries its young except when it puts them out suckle." In another corner of the map, it states that the opossum is found in the land of the cannibals. I guess the possums weren't the only ones worried about being eaten.
Speaking of food, the opossum is a true omnivore, feeding on everything from earthworms, insects, amphibians, snakes, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, and road kills. Contrary to popular opinion, possums are not born dead by the side of the road. In fact, this primitive marsupial enjoys the benefits of living near humans. It can live in urban parks as well as suburban neighborhoods.
So, how many opossums are there? In a rich habitat, such as a forest along the Sangamon River, there were approximately 300 possums per square mile. Another Illinois study in poor possum habitat, 98 percent of the land being farmed, found only 10 per square mile.
Interestingly, the Virginia opossum does not defend a territory or have much of a family life. Instead, it is a solitary wanderer, switching dens every two days or so. That doesn't mean you can't see more than one possum at a time. During a January night hike here at the nature center, we saw two up a tree. Possums mate in mid- to late winter, so I imagine we interrupted something.
Interruptions brings me back to the dog. When he leaves his latest possum package, "DeadEx" as it were, on the steps to my apartment, it has to be moved.
So I find a shovel and slowly slide the blade under the drooling possum. As I do so, it just stands up as if it had other things to do -- crabapples to eat and grubs to slurp down. It doesn't jump up with a start or make a noise, it simply ambles off its "deathbed" to the tall grass by the lake. Perhaps, it was going to join Granny for the Possum Day festival.
Mark Spreyer is the director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.