Baby Opossums Get New Lease on New England Life

Being a seasoned trapper and heavily involved in the wildlife control industry, it doesn’t take long before you develop a knack for wildlife behavior and characteristics. After all, successfully “catching” or “trapping” a wild animal is only half the skill. One of the most important components of trapping (and more importantly, nuisance wildlife management), is understanding breeding and gestation cycles for the diverse array of wildlife that inhabit the New England area.

The young opossums after being extracted from their mother’s pouch. (Photo | Furbearer Conservation)

For example, thanks to my experience as a licensed trapper, I know that this time of year the odds are good for Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) to be carrying around a litter of newborn young. Its primarily why hunting and trapping seasons typically take place in the fall and winter, outside of peak birthing months. Here in New Hampshire, the trapping season for opossums ends in January, with most breeding and birthing taking place from February to June.

That said, while hunters and trappers are heavily regulated as to when game can be taken, other human factors - such as development, and road traffic - aren’t quite as regulated. Due to their poor eyesight and sense of hearing, the opossum is a regular sight on the roadways of New England throughout the year; especially during peak breeding and foraging times.

With all these points in mind, it came as no surprise when I received an evening call from a friend and fellow hunter & trapper two nights ago. This friend is known for acquiring all sorts of roadkill, and also inquiring as to whether or not his “critter pizzas” are worthy of some work in my fur-handling shed. Being mid-April and outside “prime” fur season, I knew he had better sense than that.

He stated he came across a road-killed opossum lying just off the center of the roadway. Being an experienced woodsman and trapper himself, he also knew well enough that a female opossum would likely have a pouch full of young this time of year.

Upon inspection of the animal’s pouch, suspicions were confirmed as he discovered three of the opossum’s recent litter had survived the vehicular ordeal. His phone-call to me was to ask about what next steps, if any, could be taken.

I asked how old they looked - eyes open? Still pink? Any hair or fuzz on them? Mom didn’t survive, and the young lost most of their litter-mates in the process. The odds of one or two of us trying to nurse the surviving critters to adulthood was pretty much nil - and let’s face it, I’m no opossum mom.

Luckily, southern New Hampshire has an excellent wildlife rehabilitation resource in the area for these types of situations. I’ve used this rehabilitator in the past on numerous occasions - including a young opossum I removed from a client’s basement in the dead of winter (the opossum couldn’t stay in the basement, and it wouldn’t survive in the woods without a pre-located den).

I gave my friend the contact info for the rehabilitation center and the rest is history.

Striking aN Opossum balance

Some folks may scoff at the idea of a hunter or trapper “taking” the life of individual animals one day, and “saving” the life of others the next. To that rationale, I can only say those folks are gravely missing the point of conservation efforts.

An opossum discovered in a baby grand piano (Photo | Public Domain)

As mentioned above, most hunting and trapping seasons fall outside of native mammal birthing periods, so as not to negatively disrupt scientific population goals. Of course, when populations get too high, the opposite can take place (attempts to eradicate invasive nutria come to mind). Most species still need to be managed for proper balance between animal, carrying capacity, ecosystem, and biodiversity.

For example, there’s little argument that North American opossums are beneficial. They’ve been known to eat a considerable amount of ticks as well as troublesome insects. Some studies boast that opossums will consume around 90 percent of ticks they encounter. The only catch - these figures are based on ticks that attach to the opossum, which are consumed during grooming, rather than the animals actively seeking out ticks on the forest floor.

Not long ago, I was heavily criticized in newspaper editorials by local anti-hunting “eccentrics” for my publishing of a pro-possum-trapping article. I was accused of “promoting” the spread of Lyme disease in humans (a disease carried by certain tick species) by trapping surplus opossums (even when it came to wildlife control measures, such as removing invasive families of opossums breeding and residing in basement crawlspaces).

In my article, I talked about the sustainable use of the resource, and I even laid out several immense benefits possums provide the ecosystem and society - and I still couldn’t make some people happy! I’ve also had a hard time tracking down any concrete information that dictates what impacts Didelphis virginiana actually has in regard to “slowing” the “spread” of Lyme disease.

I received this criticism despite the fact that, for all the benefits the opossum provides, they also carry a host of health issues when their population numbers exceed “tolerated” levels. Los Angeles is one of several cities to feel the brunt of a possum-induced Typhus Fever outbreak.

The Opossum clearly isn’t as proficient with flea removal as they are with ticks - being a big contender in the pest control industry for introducing fleas into suburban dwellings. All is well when the opossum is living in the walls of your home as a food-host for the fleas - but when that animal leaves or dies, you will likely be the next best food source for the parasitic blood feeders.

According to New Hampshire’s records, the opossum is one of the most popular nuisance wildlife control complaints among state residents - topping in around 80% of complaint calls in 2017.

The young opossums after being extracted from their mother’s pouch. (Photo | Furbearer Conservation)

Then of course there’s also their transmission of Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, and trichomoniasis - just to name a few.

My point - while opossums are a beneficial animal for the ecosystem, hunting and trapping seasons help to promote healthy diversity through regulated seasons, while making good, ethical use of surplus individuals.

As for the baby opossums (known as joeys) mentioned above - I’m glad that a trapper’s knowledge of furbearer characteristics paid off for three little spring-time critters.