Is there anything awesome about possums?

Is there anything awesome about possums?

I have this weird relationship with possums — in that I hate them but they keep showing up in my neighborhood.

The latest encounter came as we were walking our dog late one night, in the rain. As I kept my eyes down to avoid stepping in giant mud puddles, I heard my son say, “What is THAT?”

I glanced up as he said, “Possum!” and I bolted across the street.Blog Photo

I was mostly worried that our clueless dog would try to make friends with the wildlife, but I will admit to my own panic as well. Luckily the possum did not follow.

As it turns out, we may have overreacted a bit, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Doug Gucker.

For one thing, possums don’t really run. A quick walk is the best they can do.

And despite their appearance, Gucker tells me, possums have their good qualities.

“The biggest thing they have going against them is they’re ugly,” Gucker said. “They just aren’t cute.”

No argument there.

I had turned to Gucker after sharing my possum encounter with a neighbor, who told me they in fact help keep the tick population down.

True, Gucker said.

Possums will eat anything — grubs and other insects, small snakes, trash on the side of the road, even dead animals.

“They’re kind of nature’s disposal,” he said. “They get rid of a lot of the things that other animals won’t touch. In the city, they’ll be the ones that clean up the road kill.”

While not a pleasant prospect, he said, “the good news is that you don’t have a smelly dead animal lying along the curb.”

Despite their choice of menu items, they are also very clean, joining cats as the best-groomed members of the animal kingdom, Gucker said.

“They’re constantly grooming,” he said.

Which brings us back to the ticks: “They literally will groom all the ticks off themselves and eat them. They’re the only real animal that does that.”

After one recent study, researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies estimated that a single possum could eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season.

Like raccoons, possums have tiny paws that function almost like hands, so they can pick off the ticks before they have a chance to lodge on their bodies, Gucker said.

Possums also don’t seem to be a known carrier of many diseases or viruses, including Lyme disease, which is borne by ticks, he said. One hypothesis is that the possum’s slow metabolism makes it a poor host for viruses, which want to reproduce quickly.

If you don’t want possums in your neighborhood, Gucker said, make sure you don’t leave trash lying around, keep the lids on your garbage cans tight, and don’t leave pet food outside after dark.

Possums roam the neighborhood at night hunting for food and like to find a secluded place to nest during the day — in a burrow, woodpile or crawl space, beneath a porch or shed, or even in an overgrown patch of bushes.

If you see them during the day, beware: They come out only if they’ve been disturbed from their hiding place or if they’re sick, Gucker said.

“That’s never a good sign,” he said. “You really want to avoid those animals.”

Shortly after moving into our current house, I glanced out the window one morning and saw a large possum waddling through our backyard.

“Huh,” I thought to myself. “I thought possums were nocturnal.”

When I saw it again the next day, I realized this was not good. We called a wildlife control service, which put out live traps and caught two overnight. My husband, not knowing exactly where the traps were, went out to investigate early the next morning and nearly lost his breakfast when he wound up toe-to-toe with one.

A friend relayed a different possum-control technique that I would not necessarily endorse. She grew up in a small southern Illinois town, and one day her mom found a possum sitting on the power lines above their backyard. She called the police department (which apparently doubled as animal control).

The police chief himself came out to the house, looked up at the power line and said, “Yep, that’s a possum,” and promptly fired off several rounds from his gun.

If you happen to encounter a possum on your walk around the neighborhood, stay cool (and don’t shoot, if that needs saying). Possums won’t attack unless they feel cornered or they are protecting their young, Gucker said.

Even then, they may just hiss and play dead, as they’re too slow to really attack, he said. At the same time, he said, don’t try to pick up one up if it’s “playing possum.”

“They do have a mouth full of very sharp teeth,” he said.

“You should always approach with caution,” he said. “I tend to back up and let them go their way. Possums have a role in nature, but you should also respect nature.”

 

Playing possum

Three things you’ve always wanted to know about possums (or maybe not), courtesy of University of Illinois Extension educator Doug Gucker:'

Hanging out: Possums don’t spend a lot of time hanging from trees. They will climb trees with low-hanging branches to get food, but they prefer dark, low-lying places to spend the day.

Easy prey: Slow-moving possums have lots of predators, from coyotes to cars.

Low metabolism: While many possums die over the winter, they can survive if they find a burrow or somewhere warm. They essentially sleep through the winter, though it’s not a true hibernation.

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Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth, or leave a comment on her blog at news-gazette.com/blogs/there-yet.

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Roanrider wrote on June 06, 2017 at 7:06 pm

This article is HUGELY misleading. Opossums are the main carrier of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, a fatal neurological disease of horses.