Grandaddy’s possum show-n-tell

Published 8:56 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

A few days ago, right at dusk, our yard was visited by a large and apparently very hungry opossum, which was interested in the seeds and suet cake scraps the woodpeckers had let fall to the ground under the tulip poplar tree.

He was a scruffy looking dude, who’d suffered the effects of a typical Tidewater 40-degrees-and-raining-all-day kind of day. There he was, a dip-dyed, wet, furry mess, with his long, shaggy, white fur tipped with black. Not a good look with the naked-scaly-tail, beady-eyes, pointy-nose thing he had going.

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My very first encounter with an opossum was around the age of 5 or 6. Grandaddy brought a live one home to Portsmouth in a chicken cage, a prize from a visit to his childhood home in Sunbury, N.C. It was apparently a gift from his mother to be presented to his bride for cooking purposes; another case of country mouse meets city mouse gone terribly wrong.

Even though the meat of the possum is historically a popular food on Southern tables, it turned out that none of Grandma’s recipes or sensibilities included a marsupial from North Carolina. Possum and Granddad were summarily dismissed.

Since the possum had no culinary merit, it was re-evaluated for its educational potential. Soon, a possum “show-and-tell” for the grandchildren arrived at my house, much to the horror of my mother and excitement of all involved, including the guest of honor.

The Virginia opossum, didelphis virginiana, the only marsupial native to the United States, is an ancient creature whose ancestors can be traced back nearly 65 million years.

Besides the fact that females carry their babies in a pouch until they reach maturity, possums have many remarkable characteristics: They are solitary and nocturnal, but are sometimes active by day in winter. They are omnivorous and will eat anything that is remotely edible, including a large number of ticks, which makes them a beneficial visitor.

With a brain one-fifth the size of a raccoon’s, and speeds reaching 7 mph, they are vulnerable to most predators, even if they actually decide to run. Unlike raccoons, they are not prone to rabies.

Opossums have a prehensile tail, mostly used for balance while climbing. When young, they can hang from tree limbs by their tails but they become too heavy for this activity as adults.

They live in burrows and cavities and will nest anywhere that is convenient.

When alarmed, afraid or attacked, some will “play possum,” a characteristic that sets them apart. This response, over which they have no control, consists of lying on their side, drooling with tongue out, and eyes open or closed. They get paralyzed with fear!

Not all do, though — mostly the older wiser ones.

We quickly learned at Granddad’s “possum show-and-tell” that other options are available: among them, hissing, growling and showing very, very sharp teeth. Also known as “grinning like a possum.” Who’s paralyzed with fear now?

Fortunately, neither the possum nor Granddad got roasted that evening. The possum quickly became the primary subject in Grandaddy’s “release back to the wild program” at Paradise Creek, where we assume it lived out its days wild and free, improving the local possum population.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at