Last week on one of the few warm days without too much wind I drove through the Bottoms. The ducks are paired up and the northern shovelers are breathtakingly gorgeous in their spring plumage.
The blue-winged teal drakes have a white face patch during breeding season. I have always wished that it would be legal to harvest one bird in the spring for taxidermy — you don’t have that legal opportunity and most game wardens don’t understand if one happens to show up on your wall. I have no further comment. It was fun to see a cinnamon teal with the pair of blue-winged birds.
While I was admiring the ducks and looking for shorebirds at 3 in the afternoon, I happened to see a raccoon cruising the edges and down the road, by pool 2, I saw an opossum waddling along the shore. I happened to have a camera, so I got a couple of pictures.
The opossum surprised me by leaping (as only they can do) into the brush and grabbed a snake for his afternoon snack. The snake made a fatal mistake by coming out to get some sun and warm his cold blood to regain movement and function. It was still too cool for adequate mobility to escape.
It’s not a great picture, but you can see the process. Opossums get some bad press because they appear in chicken coops and such. They don’t kill many chickens, but will eat anything left lying around.
My friend Todd put out some live traps when his chickens and our ducks started disappearing. (We had the bright idea of getting some Khaki-Campbell ducks one year to get some great eggs. The dozen chicks came in a cardboard box from California and they didn’t do well and we didn’t get any eggs as I recall.) We caught skunks, raccoons, and opossums. We saw a big boar raccoon actually attack a chicken, so we assumed that critter and his kinfolks to be the main culprits. Have you ever tried to release a skunk from a live trap? There are very few ways to do it right and lots of ways to do it wrong. We explored both processes in some detail and learned a lot.
If you haven’t spent much time with an opossum, there are several things about those little critters that are really amazing. I did some research and learned some interesting facts. The life span is about 18 months which seems short to me. They are our only marsupial in the USA.
By strict definition, a marsupial delivers premature babies that attach to a nipple on the mother’s belly. The big test for life occurs at birth — the babies have to climb after birth up to the nipple to attach. There are usually 15-18 babies and only 13 nipples — survival of the fittest at a very early age. They stay attached to the nipple for a time and then start moving about — often being transported on their mother’s back.
They become mature very quickly and start producing their own babies. They have about 50 teeth and have a high level of immunity to rattlesnake bites. Since they are nocturnal, owls are their main natural predator. Humans and their dogs are the most dangerous un-natural predator.
When they “play dead” it means they are in danger of being killed. They actually go into a stupor and apparently lose all sense of pain—documented broken bones and severe injuries are not uncommon. The idea is that if they don’t respond to the attack, the attacker will lose interest and move on. It may take several hours for the opossum to recover and get to safety. I think it takes a lot of fortitude to play dead. One of our nurses at Clara Barton Hospital had a pet opossum that ate dog food and got really huge. It would ride around on her shoulder and grin at everyone.
Go take the tour of the Bottoms when you can and look for these little guys. Todd is holding a female opossum that has babies in the pouch with their tails sticking out when we caught one in alive trap. There are also some armadillos that root around along the roads. These are just some of the dramas of the marsh that are ongoing every day.
What do you know about muskrats? That is another story for another day! Don’t miss the spring migration and critters of the night.
Doctor Dan Witt is a retired physician and nature enthusiast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.