You may have noticed a few road-killed opossum’s on area roadways of late. In fact, there are two deceased ones on Mauch Chunk Road between Grumpy’s Restaurant and the former Gravely shop in South Whitehall Township. The one reason for these sightings is that opossums are on the move because it’s breeding season that runs from late February and March in Pennsylvania. This, plus they’ll also feed on other road-killed animals and may get hit while feasting.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, opossums are basically nocturnal but will forage for food during the day. And since they walk slowly at 0.7 mph and their running speed is 4 mph, their slow shuffle gait makes them a roadway victim.
In case you didn’t know, opossums are the oldest living mammal and the only marsupial on our continent. They are well developed compared to other mammals and continue their growth and development in a pouch on their mother’s abdomen. They didn’t appear in North America until the Pleistocene Epoch, less than a million years ago.
Opossums’ sense of smell and touch are well developed but their hearing is not especially keen and their eyesight is weak. They don’t hibernate, but shelter in hollow logs, woodchuck holes, rock crevices, tree cavities, abandoned squirrel leaf nests, beneath porches and old buildings. They seldom spend two successive nights in the same den and are typically found in farmland, woodlots, brushy woods and in dry or wet terrain. Opossums also inhabit suburbs and edges of towns where food and cover are available, and they can climb trees.
As for breeding season, opossums are solitary. Females, and unweaned offspring, stay together and the sexes only come in contact during breeding. After breeding, the female drives off the male and the male plays no part in raising young.
Females can breed when they’re a year old and may bear a second litter, breeding again from mid-May to early July.
Opossum young grow rapidly in their mothers’ pouch and by eight weeks their eyes open and they let go of the mammaries for the first time. They begin leaving the pouch for short periods, riding atop her back while gripping her fur with their claws.
A few years back I found two dead baby opossums in my back yard. I can only guess that maybe one of the three known feral cats in our area got them, or they died from a disease and the mother abandoned them in my lawn.
Opossum’s main diet consists of terrestrials, aquatic insects, lizards, snakes, toads, the young of small animals, bird eggs, young birds, berries, wild grapes, acorns mushrooms and cultivated plants.
If threatened, and an opossum cannot climb to escape, they’ll feign death, commonly called, “playing possum” by lying motionless, eyes and mouth open, its forefeet clenched, and its breathing becomes shallow plus they emit a musky odor. They do this because some predators ignore dead prey, but they’ll also growl, hiss or click its teeth when annoyed by smaller predators or people.
When food is plentiful, an opossum may range only a few hundred yards in cultivated areas where fencerows, rocky field corners and fields have been cleared for crops. But they can range up to two miles to find food.
So, in this breeding season, be alert when driving, especially at night, because opossums don’t have the speed to get out of a vehicles way that’s moving 55 mph.
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Nick Hromiak has been an outdoors and automotive writer for over 30 years. He's been published in numerous national and state-wide outdoor magazines and newspapers.