The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial (pouched mammal) native to North America. Also known simply as "possums," they originally lived only in the southeastern United States. Opossums were introduced to the West in 1890 and currently have established populations along the West Coast from British Columbia to San Diego.
Generally nocturnal, opossums spend the day in hollow tree trunks, rock crevices, under brush piles, or in burrows. Because of their long, naked tails, opossums are sometimes mistaken for large rats. Their long teeth give them a menacing look, but opossums are actually quite docile and prefer to avoid human contact.
Opossums live in forested or brushy habitats, but they have adapted well to living close to people in cities and suburbs. They are excellent climbers and good swimmers. Opossums also spend a lot of time slowly ambling about on the ground. Sadly, as a result, they are frequently struck by cars. When facing danger, they also do "play possum," entering a state similar to fainting that can last from less than a minute to six hours. The maneuver is designed to make predators lose interest.
Opossums are omnivores. They eat both plant and animals and scavenge carrion and garbage. Basically solitary, opossums avoid each other except during breeding season in late winter.
Like other marsupials, opossums give birth to almost embryonic young. The newborns crawl into their mothers' pouches, where they will remain firmly attached to a nipple until they are about 50 days old. When the pouch becomes too crowded, the young venture out to ride on their mothers' backs.
Although opossums sometimes overturn garbage, eat fruit or vegetables from the garden, and occasionally get into a chicken house they don't do much harm. They can easily be discouraged through habitat modification.
Food scraps in garbage and compost attract opossums. Dispose of trash in a metal can with a tight-fitting lid. Further secure it with a bungee cord or chain. Do not put food of any kind in open compost piles; bury food waste underground or use a lidded worm box. (Read more about composting from Seattle Tilth.)
Opossums are also drawn to pet food. It is best not to feed cats and dogs outside, but if you have no other choice, pick up bowls, leftovers and spilled food as soon as your pets have finished eating. Do not leave bowls or food scraps outside at night. To prevent opossums from entering through pet doors, do not put food near the door and lock the flap at night.
Above: Infant Virgina Opossums in care at PAWS Wildlife Center