- Size: 36” long.
- Color: covered with white and gray fur.
- Habitat: wooded areas.
- Where and when to observe: active at night in spring through fall at various parklands throughout the five boroughs particularly Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the Cass Gallagher Nature Trail in Van Cortlandt Park, and the Riverside Park Bird Sanctuary.
Perhaps he was just startled, but when my brother-in-law a saw a little Virginia Opossum looking in his back porch window, he ran to another room!
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, many people do not look at these unusual mammals in the most positive light, frequently and inaccurately cited as a rabies carrier. How unfortunate since this species – the only marsupial in North America – is not only fascinating, but also provides important clean-up services for the environment.
With its coarse, salt and pepper fur, white face, long pointed nose and hairless tail and ears, the Virginia Opossum is sometimes mistaken for a rat. But take a closer look and notice the hind foot’s thumb and a pouch that holds up to 17 babies. Plus, at up to 36” long, they are more cat-sized.
Another misconception is the use of the hairless tail. No, it doesn’t allow them to hang upside down but rather helps them keep balance while clinging to branches and carrying nesting material.
Females nest in hollow trees, logs or abandoned burrows, lining the space with leaves and babies are born in less than two weeks after mating. They are just ½” long and stay in the mother’s pouch where they will nurse for three to four months. After leaving the pouch they remain with their mother, hanging onto her back as she forages for food. By 100 days old, they are ready to go out on their own. Females raise 1-3 litters per year.
As a nocturnal omnivore, they eat all kinds of items — many of which we consider pests or unwanted like carrion, eggs, slugs, grasshoppers, berries, and grass. Though they do not hibernate, Virginia Opossums remain in their dens during winter, leaving only to forage.
Though their populations are stable, and their range appears to be moving northward, Virginia Oossums do have predators like hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes. To deal with such threats, they play “possum” by playing dead – rolling over, sticking out the tongue and entering into a trance that actually slows their breathing and heart rate.
Natural predators certainly claim the lives of opossums but automobiles are even more serious, particularly since they are not quick moving animals and females may be weighed down with a full pouch. Such threats mean that Virginia Opossums live only 1-2 years on average.
These little animals can be seen in parks and wooded areas around the city, especially at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the Cass Gallagher Nature Trail in Van Cortlandt Park, and the Riverside Park Bird Sanctuary.
- Didelphis virginiana by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, accessed on 1/16/09 at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/40502.
- Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City by Leslie Day, published 2007 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Opossum Society of the United States, accessed on 1/16/09 at: http://www.opossumsocietyus.org/.
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