I was at a graduation party the other evening. It was a lovely affair- the tables had been set and the food cooked to perfection. I drifted around, stuffing my gullet with hor’deourves and listening to the small talk that takes place at such an auspicious occasion. I overheard conversations about school debt, the latest purse fashion, and finally settled in on a table that was discussing possums.
This conversation reopened the debate that I’ve heard for many years — why or why not you should kill a possum. Most of the time, you can let nature take it’s course, if you can call being hit by a speeding two-ton piece of metal “nature.” But the question at hand was, should you get rid of them otherwise? I listened raptly as the expert talked about their chicken-killing natures. Little known fact: when they kill, they eat the guts out first (scored bonus points for dinner table conversation), but I’m reluctant to kill anything, so I quietly decided to do a little research on the subject when I got home.
Earlier in the week, I had seen a widely shared post on Facebook that spoke of the astonishing tick-eating ability of our marsupial neighbors. It said, “A recent study found that an opossum kills about 95.5% of the ticks that land on it. A single opossum maybe “hoovering up and killing” 4,000 ticks every week and thereby protecting us from Lyme disease.” Of course, the scholarly work from whence that research came wasn’t identified so I’m not sure about the truth of it.
When I got home I searched the rest of the Interwebs. I found lots of biological articles about possums. One titled “Omnivores Galore” said the possum’s normal diet consists of carrion, rodents, insects, snails, slugs, birds, eggs, frogs, plants, fruits, and grains. They also eat human food, table scraps, dog food, and cat food. But none of these articles mentioned chickens.
I moved next to YouTube to look for video evidence. I found lots of videos of possums, some taken in dark chicken pens, but they didn’t really show any aggressive behavior. They all just froze when the light got on them- caught at the wrong place, at the wrong time. I found an adorable video of a mama dog (just Google “dog mama possum”) where a lab mix adopted a handful of the baby marsupials. They slept with her and clung to her back when she went for a walk. I did see a video listed as “possum eating chicken,” but it turned out to be “a chicken leg” off a cooked bird, so I couldn’t count that as conclusive evidence.
Then I Googled “possum kill chicken” and found all sorts of angry farmer lore about the varmints. The first article up said, “An opossum that gets into your coop or run will target eggs and young chicks, but they are certainly known to kill adult chickens as well. Small bantams are especially at risk.” There were many articles that talked about this; some containing tips on how to possum-proof your coop. So, the dark side of the possum was verified.
I did, however, find out some fascinating things about the creatures, which I’ll leave you with (from Mother Earth News “10 things you didn’t know about possums:”)
- Natural immunity. Opossums are mostly immune to rabies, and in fact, they are eight times less likely to carry rabies compared to wild dogs.
- Poison control. Opossums have superpowers against snakes. They have partial or total immunity to the venom produced by rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers.
- They have an unusually high need for calcium, which incites them to eat the skeletons of rodents and road kill they consume. They’re the sanitation workers of the wild.
- Pest control. Since their diet allows them to indulge on snails, slugs, and beetles, they are a welcome addition to the garden. Opossums also keep rats and cockroaches at bay by competing with them for food. In fact, it’s common for opossums to kill cockroaches and rats if they find them in their territory.
- Good pupils. The eyes of the opossum appear black, but what we are seeing are strongly dilated pupils; there is iris around them, it’s just mostly out of sight. The giant pupils are thought to be an adaptation to their nocturnal habits.
- And a bonus for the Scrabble players: Male opossums are called jacks and females are called jills. The young are referred to as joeys, just like their Australian cousins, and a group of opossums is called a passel.
All this brought me back to the kill-or-don’t-kill argument. I can tell you want my Pop would have said. “Spend a nickel on a shell and send that thing to kingdom come.”
We don’t have chickens, but my neighbors do, so if I see one traipsing around, I’ll probably trap it and relocate it (across a bridge, over a river was Pop’s recommendation on where to let trapped animals go). But if I wait for a little bit, the cars on my road will probably take care of business for me.