A lot of things happen in the wilds while you’re waiting for something else to happen. Another morning, I’ve been sitting near a weedy path at the back of a woodlot, a funneled crossing between corn fields. It would be a classic place to ambush deer, but I’m waiting for the turkey I know to roost in the pines to wander down the hill. But, as the sun’s rays begin to peek through the evergreen boughs, I see a tiny flicker of movement in the tall grass. It’s not a turkey, obviously, but I keep my full composure in case a tom is watching. I move not a muscle, don’t even turn my head, but in a few seconds, it becomes apparent that I don’t have to. The tiny critter proceeds right across my feet with its brood in tow, all three of them It’s a possum, aka the Virginia possum, Didelphis Virginiana or, if you really want to be really pretentious, the O’Possum! (But we allus calls ‘em “Pogo”).
The possum doesn’t get much respect these days, actually it never did, and it’s hard to love an otherwise worthless and anti-social creature with a rat’s tail that’s rumored to carry deadly diseases like rabies and leprosy. The possum needs a good lawyer because there’s little truth to this slander. Actually he’s very resistant to rabies, and it’s the armadillo that can carry leprosy, not possums. So, people have little to fear from them, except for one thing; Equine infectious anemia (EIA), also known as Swamp Fever or Coggins disease (after the test) is spread through the feces of possums and it’s a real problem for horses. It doesn’t help that possums are drawn to barns full of sweet horse feed, hay and often food left out for barn cats.
If you’re taking out the trash and you encounter a possum, which is not an unlikely scenario as they love garbage, your best bet is still to leave them alone. No, they aren’t aggressive, but they do have a mouth full of surprisingly nasty teeth and they are a fur bearing game animal protected by a closed season under Ohio Wildlife Law. I’ve been up close and personal with possums several times, always by surprise and usually around my barn or garage, but I’ve never seen one “play possum”, its notorious behavior where it will (supposedly) lie down and pretend to be dead in the hopes that the predator (me) will leave. Every time they hiss, face me and display their teeth. Maybe it’s just me?
Possums are a real oddity in the animal world for other reasons as well. They are the only North America marsupial, a fact that has kept evolutionary scientists scratching their heads since Darwin was around. They are good swimmers, excellent climbers and have prehensile tales. Their gestation period is just thirteen days, they have more teeth (52) than any other animal in North America and they have an odd number of nipples (keep that little tidbit of knowledge tucked away for your next game of Trivial Pursuit). But the king-daddy of all weird possum factoids is that they are practically immune to the venom of poisonous snakes!
They say that baby possums ride on their mothers’ back once they are too big to be in the pouch, and I’ve seen that before. I’ve even seen the babies cling to the back of a mother that was (obviously) dead. But these guys walking up to me today must have been given that “Momma has a sore back” speech because they are walking behind the mother in line, straight as can be. I’m seated on the ground with my back up to a tree, as is my custom when turkey hunting so as to camouflage my outline and make myself as inconspicuous as possible. The mother walks right up to my outstretched legs and begins to sniff. I half expected her to climb over my ankles, but she simply turned and went around me, the youngsters all in tow. I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out that possums have terrible vision, in fact they are almost blind. They rely on their sense of smell heavily for locating other animals and food. This point is the next lesson the possum teaches me, as I watch it climb down a muddy bank a few yards away and begin to feast on little snails it finds attached to rocks in the stream. She crunches them up, shells and all, turning small stones in the shallow water one after another. After gorging herself and offering none to her litter (maybe they’re still too small) she turns and disappears up the path just the way she wandered down.