Playin’ Possum

I first met Didelphis virginiana (the Virginia opossum) in New Jersey.  I met a mother and her babies in a cage where I volunteered at an animal rehab center on the weekends.  I don’t remember much – screech owls and bats were much more fun to care for – but I do remember the other staff stressing to be careful around a mother with her babies and I remember noting how ugly they were.  And then there were all those teeth in that long, skinny jaw.

I don’t recall seeing another possum until we moved to Halcyon.  One fall evening during our first year I heard a loud rustling outside the kitchen.  I hadn’t raked yet and that one possum lumbering over a pile of dead leaves was loud enough to increase my heartbeat as I peered out into the night, expecting to see a bear.  Again, though, I had no more encounters with possums until this year.

This fall we found that a possum had taken to visiting the cats on the side porch where we feed them.  Once Chris discovered that the possum actually knew how to open the cats’ food bin, we had to bring it inside.  I carefully measure the cat food every day and if it’s not eaten by evening, I bring the leftovers inside so as to not further encourage this possum.  Often enough to probably still be encouraging, I will realize I forgot to bring in any food at night as I lie in bed listening to the crunch of late-night snacking.  A hiss and a crash of glass confirms it was probably the ‘ol possum.  Not worth getting out of bed at this point.

I still didn’t really mind this.  Cardinals steal the cat food too and I figure I’m just sharing a little bit of protein for some hungry critters.  It helps too that I’ve been reading how important possums are in the diversity picture of an area.  More on that later, but understand that possums were endearing themselves to me and I didn’t mind that they were around.  That is, until I found one sleeping in the chicken coop the other day.

Be careful where you stick your hand!

Be careful where you stick your hand!

It is one thing to hang around and take some easy cat food.  It is another thing entirely to eat some eggs out of the chicken coop and then curl up in the straw and take a nice long nap in the nest box!  My ambivalence and growing endearment were mixed with anger suddenly at this new development.  How dare this little thing come and steal my eggs.  My girls and I work hard for those eggs.  I tried to poke it to make it leave, but it just opened its mouth to show me all those teeth and didn’t budge.  It clearly wasn’t playing dead, an involuntary reaction that leaves a possum in a near-coma state for two to three hours.  Maybe it is unsafe to be in a coma while actively digesting.  So I left the door open hoping that the bright afternoon sun would bother it enough to make it leave.

I went back to check an hour later.  I thought my plan had worked. I was just reaching in to push down all the straw when, whoa!  That little bugger was hunkered down, sleeping again!  I also noticed an egg on the ground near the coop.  I assume the possum pigged out on one or two eggs and then needed to nap.  One poor chicken that still needed to lay an egg apparently was not about to mess with the napping nabster upstairs and went about her business outside.  This possum had to go.  I don’t think my chickens are willing to share sleeping quarters and I am not willing to share eggs.

Look at those teeth!

Look at those teeth!

I prodded harder this time until it fell out of the nest box and tumbled onto the ground level of the coop.  That put us face to face where it could run right at me.  I went around to the long side of the coop and put the wire fencing of the coop between us and continued to prod it out of the coop completely.  It ran out the garden and straight up the nearest tree.  Now I had a real problem.

Possum in a panic

Possum in a panic

My problem was not that I couldn’t reach it or continue to scare it off.  My problem was not that it could easily come back anytime it wanted since it crawled right under the electric fence.  My problem was that the darned thing was cute.  And I’m not even a mama possum!  It was young and looked adorable making its getaway, and then peering down at me from a tree branch.  My problem is that suddenly I wasn’t mad at it, and for now I’m doing nothing about it.

Opossums are special.  Yes, they’re kind of ugly.  Sure, they can seem vicious.  But as the only marsupial in North America north of Mexico, I am proud to host them at Halcyon.  Baby possums are born helpless and the size of a honeybee! Good thing for the protective pouch.  You’ll notice I’ve used both the word possum and opossum in my writing.  Possum is a colloquial term for the original word opossum.  They have 50 teeth, which is more than any mammal in North America.  I am trying to imagine the human mouth with 18 more teeth – nine more on each side – and it’s not a pretty picture.

I am happy to have possums at Halcyon though because it increases the diversity of the wildlife.  Possums only live for about two years, so if I were a mama possum, I’d want my young to have a good two years (Possums have a REALLY small brain and therefore may not think much about other possums).  I am also happy to have possums here because their presence has been found to decrease the incidence of Lyme disease.  Possums may be ugly, but they are prodigious groomers and in the process of grooming eat and kill most of the ticks that took a ride hoping for a blood meal.  Not encountering ticks or the Lyme spirochete they carry is a real nice benefit to sharing some cat food and the very occasional egg.

Retreat to a tree

Retreat to a tree

Isn’t my ignoring the problem the same as playing dead?  After all, I just want the threat to go away.  Will it work as well as playing dead?  I guess that depends on how tasty those eggs were or how scary I was prodding and yelling at the poor little thing.  I am glad no one I know can comment on that second condition!  Obviously, if nondomestic members of Halcyon start eating my eggs, I will have to rethink my “do nothing for now” strategy.  I want the possums to stay.  If I relocate it, and others, I may lose the young generation that would stay and mate, and continue to eat ticks.  I am hoping I can “play possum” and keep my eggs.