Our neighbors informed my wife that they have had a possum visiting their yard this winter. "Don't possums hibernate?" my wife asked me.
Unfortunately for them, possums don't hibernate. I say unfortunately as they are not well protected by fur, and their ears and tail are especially subject to frostbite. On older individuals the edges of their ears and the tip of their tail may be ragged or even missing because of this.
As the possum's formal name, Virginia opossum, implies, this is another of those half-hardy species more common in our Southern states. When this continent was colonized by Europeans, possums did not occur north of Pennsylvania. Like the Carolina wren, however, they have extended their range during mild winters and because we provide food -- birdseed for the wrens, garbage for the possums.
OK, if they don't hibernate, where do these largely nocturnal animals spend our harshest cold spells? Their dens are underground or in thickets, under brush piles or in hollow trees. They don't dig holes but take over abandoned woodchuck or skunk burrows. They line their retreats with leaves and twigs, which they drag to their nest grasped in their prehensile tail. During cold snaps, a possum will stay in its lair for several days at a time.
To me the possum is far and away our ugliest animal. It is not only ratlike in appearance, with its beady eyes, bare conical pink snout and long tail, but its fur is coarse and mottled with black and white hairs. Its cheeks and breast are often stained yellowish-orange, probably from sloppy eating habits. Its pelt is of little value to trappers.
Male possums are about the size of house cats, females only half as large. Perhaps because they are so unattractive, they are loners, the sexes coming together only to spend less than a half hour breeding. This happens at this time of year as well as in June or July.
Often referred to as living fossils, because of their primitive characteristics, possums are marsupials, characterized by pouches in which their young are nurtured. Their relatives are those strange and strangely named Australian isolates: kangaroos, koalas, wombats, gliders and bandicoots.
Just how different these animals are is shown by their gestation period of 12 1/2 days. Compare this with more than 60 days for skunks and raccoons. To say that newborn possums are premature is an understatement. Smaller than bees when born, they immediately make their way to their mother's pouch, where they latch onto one of the 13 teats to which they will hold fast for two months. It is then another three months before they are weaned and soon abandoned, the female ready to begin another breeding cycle.
South Carolina naturalist Bill Hilton tells a delightful story about a pet possum, "a youngster we raised back in the 1970s, during our biology teaching days at Fort Mill High School. Students took turns carting the baby opossum around during the day in a shoe box and -- thanks to a tolerant and understanding faculty -- bottle-fed the kit on an hourly basis.
"The possum also went home every night with a different student, each of whom got vivid, unforgettable first-hand information about animal growth and development -- to say nothing of learning how time-consuming it might be someday to care for his or her own child.
"As the possum got larger, we transferred it to a cage in the classroom and fed it mostly cat and dog food. It imprinted on us, of course, and when we placed the possum on the ground and walked away, it would run as fast as it could toward the closest human.
"Reaching its goal, it would climb up a pants leg, keep going vertically, and not stop until perching on top of the person's head -- usually wrapping its prehensile tail around the person's ear for stability. The students and the possum never seemed to tire of this activity, and everyone was truly sad when the end of the year rolled around, and we had to release our now-grown marsupial in woods near the school."
Possums can be rabid and are best left alone. When they find themselves threatened, they pretend to die -- the source of the expression "playing possum" -- and can remain in a catatonic state for as long as several hours. I don't recommend testing this on your patio, because they often also exude a foul-smelling greenish secretion.