Marsupial du jour

Saturday June 8, 2013

My home is far enough out in the sticks for us to see a fair amount of wildlife. Sometimes it’s the real deal, and sometimes it’s the carcass of the real deal.

Our cat Max provided lots of carcass viewing on our front walk ... his personal carcass repository. "Provided" ... as in past tense. He hasn’t caught anything except for a small mouse or two since early spring. Usually the brick walk would have a new discovery every day. Much of Max’s yield came from our yard, especially squirrels and chipmunks from the stone wall, and the occasional mole or mouse from across the road in a large field. This spring, nothing.

My significant other feels that her cat Max (and he is all hers, no doubt about that) has done such an efficient job that he has cleaned out the chipmunk and mouse populations. I agree with that theory, but only partially. Yes, I do not see any activity along our stone wall where the 2012 chipmunk population had exploded, and there is activity along a stone wall down the hill, so I’ll give him that. But mice and moles? Those populations have been on the rise in recent years, and for it to all of a sudden go bust seems rather odd. Maybe Max is getting some unwanted help with his predation duties. I know for a fact that there is a den of foxes at the bottom of the hill, and our place has to lie well within their hunting range. We don’t see any other cats regularly, and we are aware of a strong coyote presence. Could be possums.

The main road that lies farther down the hill has been the site of several possum carcass spottings recently. I was reading up on possums the other day and would not rule them out as a potential rival for mice. Possums like garbage, and we’ve had ours strewn around this spring by something. However, until I did a bit of research, I had no idea that possums will eat mice. I didn’t really know that they were omnivores, but that’s what I’ve read.

In fact, until the early 1980s, I don’t think we had any possums around southern Vermont. As a kid I didn’t see any around here. It was in the early 1980s when I ran a "Bird Feedin’ Contest" on local radio stations. The idea was to see how many different species the entrants would spot at their feeder, and the one with the most would win a prize package. The oddest entry included a possum, and a photo of that possum in the feeder to prove it. That entry came from a listener in South Charlestown, N.H., right along the Connecticut
River. At that time it was quite a novelty. OK ... the river valley is usually somewhat warmer than a few miles east or west, so if possums were migrating north, it would stand to reason that they chose warmer areas to follow. Now we have them up in the hills. In the 1990s they were spotted as far north as the Champlain Valley. Now they’ve been seen in Montreal. I guess possums are here to stay.

The Opossum is the only marsupial in north America. Marsupial meaning a mammal like creature with a pouch to protect the young. Possums have thumbs on their hind feet, which greatly assists their remarkable climbing ability. The tail appears to be somewhat prehensile, yet it isn’t strong enough to support a possum hanging from a tree limb ... it’s the thumbed hind feet that allow them to seemingly hang by their tails. However, the tail does help to stabilize possums when they climb. I’ve always thought of possums as a southern creature, a heavy part of the lore of the Appalachians in the Carolinas and Virginia, yet here they are. What gives?

The people who research critters like possums say that they are very intelligent ... just a bit brighter than pigs, which are just a bit smarter than dogs. This, of course, makes them highly adaptable. That would partially explain their migration, but warming temperatures are probably a factor as well. They tend to nest in hollowed logs and abandoned dens of other species. A UVM Professor who studies possums has learned that some of them do get frostbite on ears and paws. However, they have obviously figured out how to survive here because not all of them get frostbitten.

Will we eventually start dining on possum like our hillbilly cousins in the south? They don’t seem plentiful enough here to add humans to the rather long list of predators who enjoy possum, but you never know. They are relatively harmless creatures who have been added to the New England food chain in recent decades, but they don’t appeal to me as a gustatory delight. While they may be giving our house cat some competition for mice, it is likely to be a passing fancy because they are not territorial, they keep moving, and that’s just fine by me.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.


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