Andy's Tracks & Trails
Photo #1. Large male Opossum
In the early 1970’s and not yet a teenager, my parents drove me to Lee’s Taxidermy in Prescott, Wisconsin, to sell my small trapping catch to Fur Buyer, Lee Schommer. Always an adventure for me in those days, I was far more interested in the many animals and pelts present in the basement of Lee’s shop, than I was in what he’d pay me for my furs.
Looking over some stretched skins in a bundle lying on his shop floor was a dozen pelts I didn’t recognize. Stretched somewhat like a muskrat, but much larger and with gray & white fur, I asked Lee, “what are they?” “Possum,” Lee replied. Lee said they were from a trapper’s catch in southern Wisconsin, or Iowa, he couldn’t remember which. Lee was quick to say that “Possum” weren’t found locally.
Photo #2. Stretched Opossum pelts (left front) with gray squirrel, and ermine.
Throughout the 1970’s I had never seen or caught an Opossum in my home area of East Central Minnesota. I had never even seen a road killed one in the Metro area. Having run a number of traplines for fox and coon by the late 70’s, I wondered if I’d ever catch an Opossum. Never especially valuable, there’s just something about catching the “first” of any species that’s intrigued me and pushed me to learn all I could about that particular furbearer, to help catch it.
Opossum, Virginia Opossum, Possum, Grinner, Opie, whatever you call them, Opossum’s have a face not even a mother could love! White facial fur, a pink nose, black beady eyes, naked ears, and a wide, menacing toothy grin give them a distinctive and almost cartoonish look. Slow moving and not especially alert, Opossum appear to be dim witted and not very intelligent. Like Comedian Rodney Dangerfield, they don’t get any respect. Yet Opossum are survivors and are increasing their range in the US, and in Minnesota. And they do have a few tricks up their sleeve!
Omnivores, Opossum eat a wide variety of food, which has helped them expand their range northward. Fruits, grains, insects, worms, birds, eggs and young, mice and carrion, snakes and fish, all make up an Opossum’s diet when available. Not true hibernators, they will den up in extreme cold, or when deep snow buries available food sources.
Photo #3. Adult Opossum at the intersection of University and Snelling Avenues, St Paul, MN. Waiting for the light to change? Photo courtesy of District 6 Trapper, Mike Herschman.
Opossum can vary greatly in size and weight. Most will be about the size of a house cat, but some are much larger. Adults will weigh between 4 – 15#, and are close to 3 feet in length, including the furless, prehensile tail. Pelt color can range from almost all white to almost all black. Most will have lighter underfur with either gray or black guard hairs. Fur extending down to the feet is usually dark or black. Belly fur is usually not as long and thick and often lacks many guard hairs.
Opossum have five toes on each foot. Back feet have an opposable thumb, which aids in climbing and makes Opossum back foot tracks resemble a human hand print, although much smaller. Claws are strong and very sharp, but not very long. Track impressions will be 1 – 2” in diameter and have a “star shaped” appearance in soft dirt or snow. Back foot impressions are often placed directly over the front foot impression, enlarging or changing the track shape. Opossum movements give the appearance that the animal is waddling as it moves and foot impressions will be spaced 8 – 12 inches apart. Sometimes in snow, a tail drag mark is observed.
Photo #4. Opossum tracks in snow. Back feet cover front foot impression.
Opossum are the only marsupial, or “pouched mammal” found in the US. Baby Opossum, called “Joeys” are born in the spring and are about the size of a dime. They crawl into the pouch on the females belly and attach themselves to one of 13 nipples found there. Joey’s will remain in the pouch for 60 – 70 days, before being strong enough to climb out and ride on the female’s back. Opossum litters can often contain up to 20 Joey’s, but many do not survive. In the southern US, Opossum may have two litters per year. In Minnesota, generally one. Males do not aid in raising the young. Females can reproduce at 10 months of age.
Where do I find Opossum?
Solitary and mainly nocturnal, Opossum can be found in urban areas, suburbs, and rural agricultural areas. Think habitat similar to what skunks like. Opossum prefer mixed woods with trees large enough to den in, but will use a hollow log on the ground, old woodchuck or fox dens and any shed or outbuilding they can dig under to call home. I seem to find most in woods with lots of “clutter”. Dump sites, junk and brush piles, old buildings, rusty machinery scattered about, all provide Opossum with plenty of places to find food or den in.
In farming areas, Opossum will occupy old buildings and hay lofts, just as raccoons do. Large stacks of round hay bales make great den locations and provide mice and birds for them to eat. In suburban settings, Opossum have learned that homeowners leave cat and dog food dishes in back yards for their pets. It makes for easy pickings, along with the bird seed from bird feeders that get refilled every day. In urban areas, Opossum are regular visitors to trash cans, fast food dumpsters, and anyone’s open garage with poorly stored food sources.
For Canine trappers, it often seems that all they have to do is make the perfect coyote set. An Opossum will surely find it before the coyote does! There’s a reason for that too. Opossums have a very good sense of smell, and use that sense to locate carrion/road kill. While hunting the edges of crop fields, or traveling from a denning location to a hunting location along a farm field road, Opossum will smell the loud lure odors and bait from the coyote set and head straight for it. Part of the reason so many Opossums are hit by cars on county roads – they smell the odor of an animal previously killed, and get hit by a car while crossing the highway to find it.
Photo #5. Opossum eating road killed pheasant along highway, late-winter.
What traps should I use?
Although Opossum can get good sized, they are slow moving and do not generate the force of K-9’s or raccoons when caught in a trap. They are easily trapped and held. Since catching my first Opossum in 1980, and many in the years after, I have caught and held them in a wide variety of traps. From #1 single long springs and muskrat sized body grips, up to #3 coil spring coyote traps and 220 sized body grips. Dog proofs, snares, spray proof skunk traps, and live traps, all have been used to take Opossum and all work well in different situations.
Since I generally don’t target Opossum during fur season, many of my catches have come while K-9 or coon trapping. Dog proof traps have proven to be excellent at catching and holding Opossum. They easily dig out the bait from the tube type traps, get caught, and are sleeping when I check the set. Sets along raccoon trails entering crop fields, and baited with any of the various dog proof coon baits will produce. Opossum caught will be waiting for you. I’ve never had an Opossum pull out a rebar stake or various types of earth anchors, yet all traps need to be secured well for the largest animal you could possibly catch at your set location.
When removing Opossum in an urban or suburban setting, remember that an Opossum set is also likely to take a skunk, if present. For this reason, chose your traps wisely. “No Spray” skunk traps work well on Opossum, and I have taken many with them. However, I’ve caught many Opossums in other types of traps that would have never fit in the “No Spray” trap. They were just too big! Live traps of various sizes and types easily take Opossum and allow for easy removal. Just be prepared to deal with the consequences of an unexpected skunk when doing nuisance work.
Photo #6. Large Opossum in live trap.
Photo #7. Dark colored Opossum caught in body grip trap. Trail along stream.
Bait and Lure
Possessing an excellent sense of smell, Opossum truly follow their nose to food sources! Another reason it’s a good idea not to use too much loud lure at a K9 set, especially in early season when Skunks and Opossum are very active. When targeting Opossum with Dog Proof traps, I’ve had most success with sardines or an oily fish-based bait. Any of the various paste type K9 baits will attract Opossum, as will bacon or fryer grease. Chicken or duck bones work great in live traps.
Photo #8. Opossum caught in a Dog Proof trap. Securely held.
Opossum do not seem to be bothered by Skunks or Skunk spray. I’ve seen Opossum eating dead skunks and I’ve even seen an Opossum walk up to an animal carcass where a Skunk was actively feeding. The Skunk raised his tail, stamped his feet, even sprayed, and it didn’t matter. The Opossum just kept walking up to the carcass and eventually moved the skunk off it, having the carcass to itself. Skunk scent, or long-distance call lures will also aid in attracting Opossum to a set location.
Photo #9. Large aggressive Opossum on a carcass pile, mid-winter. Wouldn’t even leave the carcass when I approached.
Pelts and Pelt Handling
Opossums are easy to skin, flesh and stretch. Possessing a beautiful pelt, I think many Opossum pelts are not appreciated because they are caught in the first couple weeks of trapping season when they are not yet fully furred out. Case skinned, fur in, and easy to handle with both wire or wood stretchers, the most important thing to remember is not to over flesh the pelt. Early season caught pelts fleshed too much will show guard hair roots coming through on the hide. Some of these will fall out during the tanning process. Belly hide is very thin, tears easily, and most trappers cut off the females pouch area before stretching, as part of the inspection window.
Photo #10. This one would rather fight than run.
If targeting a high-quality Opossum pelt, harvest them during a mid to late winter warm spell. Carcass piles can attract Opossums and well-established trails from denning locations to the bait make for easy trail set catches. Remember your trap set back distance if baits are exposed. Most Opossum will have a large amount of fat on the hide this time of the year. Keep the pelt cold when fleshing and it scrapes off easily. The hide will dry a white color, and both underfur and guard hairs will be noticeably thicker and longer. I wipe any remaining grease off the hide as it dries.
Photo #11. Fleshed and stretched prime winter Opossum pelt.Quality hide and fur.
Facts and Tips
Opossum have a formidable set of teeth! When the mouth is closed, the canine teeth can often be seen extending below the mouth line. An adult will have 50 teeth, more than any other North American land animal. Opossum have an unusual skull shape. Although they may be of similar size to a small raccoon, their brain is only 1/5th the size of a raccoon.
Opossum prey heavily on ground nesting game birds, waterfowl, and song birds. They eat the adults, if possible, but also any young or eggs in the nest. Abundant Opossum greatly impact nesting birds.
Most Opossum don’t live very long. Two years or so in the wild. In captivity, four to five years is normal. Fox, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, hawks and owls will prey on Opossum. Many are hit/killed by cars on roads.
I have caught many Opossums showing injury from frostbite/freezing. Ears that were extremely small, feet that were missing toes from frostbite, damaged tails. Northern Minnesota’s cold temps will be the major roadblock to Opossum colonizing that area. I have noted that Opossum numbers go way down following a severe winter. After a couple years, they seem to rebound and I start seeing many of them again.
The phrase, “Playing Possum” comes from a physical reaction Opossums get when startled or frightened. They fall over as though dead. Breathing slows, eyes will close. I saw this close up many times hunting with Coon Hounds. A female hound of mine hated Opossum. She would not go out of her way to trail them, but if one was close to where she was hunting, she attacked it aggressively, picking it up in her mouth, shaking it. I’d leash her, pull her away from the Opossum, and continue hunting. I’d look back and see the Opossum slowly lift its head, look around, then race off in the other direction. I wonder how it works with fox and coyotes?
Although they can carry many parasites, most Opossum are relatively healthy. Thought to be slightly resistant to rabies, Opossum are resistant to venoms and poisons from Animal, Plant and Bacterial Toxins. Opossum are being studied as they produce a protein identified as LTNF (Lethal Toxin Neutralizing Factor) which protects them from venom from poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, tick bites, bees and wasps and even jellyfish! Opossum have been tested and found to be immune from venom from snakes not even found on the North American Continent. When bitten by a poisonous snake, Doctors need to determine what species of snake/type of venom the victim was bitten by. LTNF, obtained from Opossum serum has proven to neutralize the venom from all the various snake families!
Opossum are the primary carries of an organism which causes Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalits (EPM) which is a neurologic disease affecting horses caused by the protozoan SN (Sarcocystis Neurona). Horses ingest the organism in infected feed and water. Opossum feces spread the disease, which can be fatal to horses and is hard to diagnose. Learn more about this disease and be informed about it. It may aid in securing trapping permission on properties and farms that breed or board horses. Horse people definitely know about it!
While you won’t receive the $10 to $15 for a prime Opossum pelt that we once received, a quality tanned Opossum pelt will still sell easily, and looks great for display or the craft trade. Consider taking some prime Opossum next winter to sell, or to donate to the Tanned Fur Project.
By Andy Shoemaker