By Kevin Pugh, Wildlife Biologist
Photo by PiccoloNamek
It’s the middle of the night and everyone is asleep. Suddenly, you hear a loud crashing sound outside the house.
Your first thought is that dogs are in the trash can. Or, perhaps you awaken to the sounds of scratching, hissing or an unpleasant odor which seems to be coming from underneath the house. It could sound like an elephant has just been turned loose in the attic.
Any or all of these situations are examples of common complaints wildlife biologists, conservation officers and wildlife damage control specialists receive on a regular basis. Very frequently, these complaints are attributed to a unique mammal, the Virginia opossum.
The Virginia opossum or possum has white or grayish fur and a long, pointed face. It may grow to lengths of up to 40 inches. Males average about 7 pounds, and females average 4 pounds. The opossum has a long rat-like tail that is a little less than half the total body length.
The opossum also has 50 teeth, which is more than any other mammal.
Photo by Rose Graham, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The opossum is also unique among North American mammals because it is the only marsupial native to North America. Marsupials are animals whose female family members have a pouch on the abdomen that covers teats and in which she carries her young.
Mating occurs from January to July, and females usually raise two litters per year. The young are born only 13 days after mating. They are blind, helpless and only a half-inch long at birth. The young remain in the mother’s pouch for about two months after birth.
They will continue to remain with the mother for another one to two months after emerging from the pouch, often hitching rides on the mother’s back when venturing away from the den site.
The opossum is a very adaptive animal. It is found in a wide range of habitats, usually close to water. An opossum may use burrows, tree cavities, brush piles and squirrel nests for shelter or den sites. Attics, garages and crawl spaces may also be utilized.
Opossums are omnivores which means they feed on both plant and animal matter. And, they are not very picky when it comes to eating. Their food sources include insects, rodents, carrion, fruit and various grain crops. They will also forage in garbage cans for scraps, back porches for pet food and chicken coops or poultry houses for eggs or young chickens.
Opossums often create problems in residential areas.
Although they are fairly harmless, they will show their teeth and hiss or growl when they encounter people. If this display doesn’t work, they excrete a very foul odor from their anal glands, roll over and play dead, hence the phrase “playing possum.”
Nuisance problems occur when opossums take up residence in attics or crawl spaces or make their nightly foraging trips to a back porch or garbage can. Solutions to a possum problem are usually not difficult.
For example, if a possum enjoys back porch foraging, feed your pets during daylight hours and remove any leftover pet food. Nuisance opossums may make another nightly trip or two, but with the food source removed, they generally move on to other hunting grounds. Problems with opossums getting into garbage cans are easily solved by placing a rubber strap tightly across the lid to keep it closed.
Other nuisance situations, such as using attics or crawl spaces for den sites, or problems with opossums getting into poultry nests may not be as easily solved.
Trapping and removing the nuisance animal is usually the best solution. The good news is that opossums are not very wary of traps. They can easily be caught with cage traps or leg-hold traps. Cheese, spoiled meat, fish or overly ripe fruit make excellent baits for trapping opossums. It’s recommended that fruit be used as bait to prevent capturing cats, dogs or skunks.
Small animal repellents are also available and are somewhat effective. These repellents contain predator scents—usually fox urine—which sometimes ward off inquisitive opossums.
Even though opossums sometimes are nuisance animals, they generally cause little damage and can be gotten rid of without calling professionals or spending much money. By removing pet food, covering holes in crawl spaces and attics and securing garbage can lids, you’ll have a good start to having a possum-free home.
-- Kevin Pugh, Wildlife Biologist
Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries