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Birds and Wildlife

Virginia Opossum or “Possum”
Polly Adcock
January 2021

Several years ago I began to wonder if there are any opossums in Clallam County . When I checked, it said none here---yet. WDFW says they are in western Washington. I had seen them in Everett, but the ONP does not mention them. A couple of friends said they have seen them east of here. A photo of an opossum from Marrowstone Island dated October 29, 2020, was sent to the Naturalist in Jefferson County

At first sight, this gray cat size animal may appear to be a LARGE rat! Its fur is course, ears are black, eyes are black, tail is hairless and strong, and its long white face contains very sharp teeth.

Before the settlers came to North America, this marsupial was found only in Central America and our southeast. However, during the 1900's it began to move westward and arrived in Washington in early 1900's; most likely as PETS or novelties. (those teeth!)

This animal is mostly nocturnal, spending daytime hours in a den or a protected area. A shortage of food will cause it to forage at any time usually near its den but will travel as far as two miles in search of food. One site said they can move at four mph. That's a short walk to ones favorite restaurant. (garbage can, pet dish, uncovered compost)

Because the Virginia opossum is an omnivore (will eat anything), it CAN be beneficial in that it eats rodents, carrion and uneaten food (garbage). One search site said they will eat snails and another site said they can eat as many as 5000 TICKS in a season! (but we don't have ticks ---yet!)

In the rural habitat wildlife biologist are concerned that this non-native critter may have an impact on native invertebrates, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, ground-nesting birds, nestlings and eggs.

The opossum is among the most silent animals in Washington but when frightened or threatened it will growl or hiss and if that fails it will PLAY DEAD --- fall on its side, curl its body, open its drooling mouth, excrete droppings or emit a stinking substance from its anal gland in order to appear and smell dead! It will keep up this ruse several minutes to several hours. Learning and discrimination tests have shown opossums to rank higher than dogs and on the same level as pigs.

It is a solitary creature except for breeding time and motherhood in which after 100 days Mama is DONE! Also the opossum does not hibernate.

They are not considered dangerous, but the human should not corner one, thereby forcing it to defend itself. It is possible that the opossum carries diseases and human should be careful of disposing of an animal. COVID-19 rule – WASH the hands. Also there is evidence that it carries a parasite that can be lethal to horses. They will kill small chickens for food. WDFW had many suggestions for dealing with this animal concerning avoiding it, and at least six laws concerning the trapping of it.

Now for my OTHER question of why the “o” in opossum. All my years I have seen it written with the “o”. A grammar site gave “uh-pos-uhm” but no one SAID THAT – just possum. The real possum is another marsupial from a different family found in Australia and discovered by Sir Joseph Banks a British naturalist traveling with Capt. James Cook. It looks like a large Chinchilla, a MUCH different look than that of the NA Virginia opossum which may have got its name from the POWHATAN tribal language of eastern Virginia. “oppassom”

While researching this report, I found an amusing article published in the Sequim Gazette ,June 6, 2017 by Tom Butler , “Natural History Dispatch: Don't Overlook Opossums”.