Opossums are more common than you think, but not a garden problem

opossum on a deck
Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Image courtesy Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

by Connie Oswald Stofko

I recently got this question from a reader:

Hi Connie! Over here on Maynard, I just saw a possum. Is this something new for Eggertsville?

Ellyn K. Demler

Since I also live in this part of Amherst, this question was especially interesting to me. A few weeks ago, I saw a deer across the street from my house–the first I had seen in my neighborhood in 30 years–and now we have opossums?

I called John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County to find out what’s up with opossums.

Opossums are common

“Opossums live in a lot of different places, from rural to suburban and urban,” Farfaglia said. “They adapt quite well to being around people.”

Even if you have never seen one, they may be in your neighborhood, too.

“They’re mostly nocturnal, so people don’t tend to see them,” he explained.

Farfaglia saw one in his Niagara County yard. It was several years ago, at 1 or 2 in the morning. He couldn’t quite remember, but he may have let his dogs out. Then he saw a opossum climbing on his deck.

“I haven’t seen once since,” he said.

People do call him about sightings of dead opossums at the side of the road that have been killed by cars.

“They’re probably more common than people think,” Farfaglia said.

Another reason you may not see opossums is that they are fairly nomadic, according to this document on the site of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“They may stay in one location for several days if the weather is bad,” Farfaglia said. “Typically, they move through an area in search of food and to find a location for cover. That’s probably why you won’t see them often. It’s unlikely that you will encounter them.”

Opossums aren’t destructive; may be helpful

The opossum’s diet consists of insects, grubs and toads, Farfaglia said. They are also opportunistic animals, so they might eat some ripe fruit or vegetable they find on the ground.

They don’t chew bark like rabbits or mice do. That’s another reason that people don’t notice opossums– they don’t leave damage in their wake.

One reader noted that opossums can actually be good for your garden because they eat ticks, and ticks can transmit diseases to humans.

Opossums are good at grooming themselves and kill “more than 95 percent of the ticks that try to feed on them,” according to Rick Ostfeld, author of a book on Lyme disease ecology and a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. “So these opossums are walking around the forest floor, hoovering up ticks right and left, killing over 90 percent of these things, and so they are really protecting our health.”

Opossums shouldn’t be a nuisance, but if they are…

Opossums don’t damage our plants, they don’t stick around long and they can eat a lot of ticks as they go. They really shouldn’t be a nuisance.

Here’s the definition of a nuisance animal from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC): A wild animal that may cause property damage, is perceived as a threat to human health or safety, or is persistent and perceived as an annoyance. Examples include a skunk or fox living under the porch or shed. If an animal is not causing any concern, for example, it is simply passing by, is observed only once or twice and does not cause any harm, then it should not be considered a nuisance.

If a opossum is bothering you, Fargaglia suggests that you make sure you don’t not leave food outside that is easily accessible to the animals. Don’t leave dishes of pet food outside. Don’t have birdseed around. Wait until morning to put your garbage out to the curb. If you’re not attracting the opossum with food, it will move along.

Trapping probably isn’t necessary, Farfaglia said.

Trapping can be done only if the opossum is a nuisance (see the definition at the top of this section). You personally aren’t allowed to trap and move the animal off your property, according to the DEC. If you need a wild animal removed from your property, contact a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator.

Fun facts about opossums

Marsupials

Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, Farfaglia said. They are more closely related to kangaroos and koalas than to animals you find in your neighborhood.

Pronunciation

Opossum is always spelled with an “o” at the beginning, but is that “o” pronounced? In Western New York, I’ve never heard the initial “o” pronounced. When I look on the Internet, some sites that I would trust say the “o” isn’t pronounced, but other sites that I would trust say it is pronounced. I give up. Say it however you like.

'

2 Comments on “Opossums are more common than you think, but not a garden problem

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *