Preserving Staten's Island's Great Outdoors

That opossum in your yard is no pest

combination image of opossums in spring and winter

Opossums, beneficial creatures common on Staten Island, are active year-round. (Spring photo by Kim Chandler, winter photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Greenbelt Conservancy

When the weather eventually warms after a too-long winter, prompting the trees to green up and the dandelions to once again invade the lawn, it also brings out bugs of every sort. We would be overrun by them were it not for our neighbors the birds. But when it comes to truly champion debugging we owe much to a secret society of unsung and seldom-seen heroes.

We are talking, of course, about our four-season friends, the opossums. Four-season because they do not hibernate in winter, though they do become less active in the cold months, when food isn’t so readily available.

Working the night shift

At one time or another you may have encountered  Didelphis virginiana – the Virginia opossum – calmly waddling  across your back yard, tip-toeing along the top of a fence or rummaging in your garbage can. Probably at night. Opossums – or simply ‘possums in the vernacular – are nocturnal and go into hiding while they sleep the daylight hours away. Many a residential neighborhood unknowingly has at least one of these solitary creatures in residence.

Opossums range from Canada to Mexico and all across Staten Island.

In the wild, opossums rarely survive a full two years (theirs is a hard lot in life), yet they have been around since the days of the dinosaurs. They have endured and thrived through all those millions of years in part because of their diet: They will eat practically anything.

Nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables (protect your gardens) are in their diet. So are unwary birds, garden slugs, unattended dog kibble and snakes of almost every sort.

Free pest control

If a critter is already dead when the opossum finds it, so much the better. It becomes part of today’s menu. And those bugs we mentioned. An opossum is not fussy. If it can catch a bug, it will eat it. Even spiders and wood ticks. Opossums vacuum them up!

Despite their appearance, opossums are marsupials (moms carry their pups in a pouch) and so are related to kangaroos and koala bears. They are not rats. In fact, they eat rats, and mice, too.

What mammals live in the Greenbelt? In this audio walking tour presented by ConEdison, WQXR radio host Jeff Spurgeon explains.

Opossums are also not fussy when it comes to finding a suitable den for the night. A cozy space under a porch will do nicely. They seldom stay more than a night or two, but may hang around longer during the mating and nesting season (which can start as early as January and last through the warm months) if the hideout is dark, dry, warm and easily defended.

So, if you should happen to cross paths with one of these beneficial creatures, please be assured it means you no harm. Don’t attack or try to catch it or pick it up (as a defense mechanism they sometimes “play possum” by emitting a putrid odor and acting as if they were dead. They will bite if threatened). Call off the dog. Just let the opossum go on its lumbering way. You will be rewarded with free pest-control services.

Michael W. Dominowski, a journalist and environmentalist, is a member of the Greenbelt Conservancy board of directors.