opossumHave you came across a large, rat-like animal with a huge jaw, and beady eyes. Did it have a hairless tail? Well, you’ve probably met with one of our most common residents: Didelphus virginiana, the Virginia opossum.

Eastern Immigrant

There is documented evidence the Virginia opossum was first introduced in San Jose, California in 1910, by a New England immigrant. Despite being a rather simple-minded animal, opossums are a very successful species. They have adapted well to our Southern California environment.

One Of A Kind

Opossums have several unique features, some not shared by any other North American mammal. Opossums are marsupials, a relative of kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. They posses opposable thumbs and a prehensile tail, both used for gripping and climbing. It is a common myth that they can hang by their tails. Opossums also have 50 teeth, more than any other North American mammal. Marsupials raise their young in the marsupium (pouch) and the opossum’s pouch is much better developed than most other marsupials. Opossum young are born in an embryonic state; hairless, blind and only partially formed (no back legs). They are about the size of a honeybee, and twenty newborns could fit into a teaspoon.

Once the newborns find the marsupium, they attach to the teats, which then swell at the tip preventing the newborns from falling off. The young grow rapidly and are ready to leave the marsupium after about sixty days. Once old enough to leave the pouch, the youngsters hang onto the mother’s fur as she travels about until they strike out on their own.

Life Habits & Diet

Opossums can and will eat a host of items, most of which are easily found in our backyards and city streets. Opossums are nocturnal and eat insects, snails, fallen fruit, carrion, eggs, improperly stored garbage, pet food and leftovers in the compost pile. Opossums are not very quick animals, nor are they really great hunters of smaller mammals or birds. The opossum will seek shelter in locations such as abandoned nests of other animals, burrows, tree hollows, rock cavities, wood piles, brush piles, trash heaps, sheds, crawl spaces, under decks, inside of unused automobiles and even storage boxes in the attic.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Because of the opossums rat-like appearance, they are a very misunderstood creatures. When threatened or cornered, opossums put up an impressive display of teeth, growls and drool. They will face their would-be attacker, making themselves as large as possible and shift back and forth. When attacked, opossums may ‘play dead’ by laying still and stiff with mouth agape. Biologists believe this is most likely an involuntary response, and is triggered by a release of chemicals into their bloodstream causing temporary paralysis. The paralysis subsides once the danger has passed and the chemical is purged from their system.

Opossum and Disease

Opossums are carriers of diseases such as: Chagas Disease, Coccidiosis, Herpes virus, Murine Typhus, Rabies, Salmonella, Spotted fever, Toxoplasmosis, Trichomoniasis, Tuberculosis, Tularemia and Yellow fever. They are reservoirs for Leptospirosis, also known as hemorrhagic jaundice in wildlife and humans.

Leptospirosis can be transmitted through the urine and feces of infected animals. Humans may contract the disease by eating unwashed produce or fallen fruit, or by putting unwashed hands to their mouth. Opossums may be heavily infested with fleas and ticks which are also known transmitters of disease. Murine Typhus and Toxoplasmosis are the prevalent diseases seen in opossums in the Los Angeles area. We are fortunate that opossums are very resistant to rabies.

Opossum Eviction

Opossums are often blamed for damage caused by other animals. Opossums are not generally known to fish Koi out of backyard ponds, cause lawn or yard damage or attack and kill neighborhood cats. Many residents are compelled to trap and remove opossums based on their looks and misinformation about their behavior. Despite trapping efforts, opossums will always be an abundant urban wild animal in your neighborhood. Rather than trapping the animal, it is better to remove food sources and maintain your property in a manner that is less inviting to them.

Feeding Opossums?

In the City of Los Angeles, it is unlawful to feed wildlife. (53.06.5 L.A.M.C.) Feeding can increase the danger of the spread of disease and draws in larger predators. Wild animals fed by humans may quickly lose their natural fear and possibly attack without provocation. Wildlife habituated to humans feeding them often have to be destroyed because of the danger they pose to neighborhood companion animals and residents. There is plenty of natural food available for opossums in the wild.

Uninviting Our Wild Neighbors

Many of the reasons we enjoy our yards are often the same reasons that cause wildlife to feel at home. Our properties supply a quiet environment with plenty of food, water and cover. Take a look at your yard to see if you can make changes that can create a less hospitable place for these animals. Here are some suggestions:

Remove woodpiles and debris to eliminate opossum hiding places. Thin dense vegetation. If you have fruit trees or a vegetable garden, remove all fallen or ripened fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.
Cover compost piles and avoid composting human food items.
Trim tree branches and shrubs away from the roof. You can also secure metal flashing around some trees to a height of about three feet to prevent climbing.
Avoid leaving companion animal food and water sitting out when your companion animal is not outside.
Make sure shed and storage area doors are tightly secured.
Do not feed wild animals. It is illegal to feed predatory wildlife in the City of Los Angeles. (L.A.M.C. Sec. 53.06.5)
Use deterrent methods to scare animals away.
To prevent animals from falling into or building a nest in the chimney, install a screened fireplace cap.
Ensure all gaps and eaves are securely screened. Secure crawlspace access screens with heavy duty construction cloth mesh of at least 18 gauge wire.
If you do feed birds or squirrels, use feeders that are designed to cut down or prevent food from falling to the ground.

Tip: If you’re not sure whether a wild animal is currently under a house or shed, lay a thin layer of white flour in front of the opening, hole or space in question. Check the spot several times during the night. When animal tracks are seen leading away from the spot, you can secure the screen or hole. You may need to repeat this if there is more than one animal.

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