8-14 June 2003

Installment #176---Visitor #count website hit

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At night, we often sit at our computer desk in the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center, answering the day's e-mails or working on the latest installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond." The roof above us is old and topped with galvanized metal that resonated pleasantly this spring during abundant rainfall. Occasionally, however, we are startled from Internet bliss by a loud thud from above that leads us to grab a flashlight to investigate the source of the sound. Almost invariably the light shines onto a big ball of gray-white fur from which protrude two beady eyes and a long pink snout--leaving little doubt a Virginia Opossum has missed its grip on a dogwood branch and bounced upon the roof.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Such audible rooftop alerts occur 'most any time but are especially frequent in spring, perhaps when the weather warms and hormones rise--even though 'possums may actually breed year-round in the Carolina Piedmont. This week we spotted 'possums on on the roof or in the yard on four different nights, and one morning awoke to find a big male nestled between two stacks of logs in the firewood pile we use to heat the farmhouse. Although 'possums typically construct a nest, we suspect free-ranging individuals don't always make it back to their home den and sometimes just curl up to snooze in some hidden spot whenever the sun comes up.

As we prepared to photograph our discovery, the slow-moving 'possum stirred and-- after getting his bearings--opened his eyes AND his mouth (top and above left), hissing loudly and baring the largest assemblage of teeth of any mammal in North America: 50, including 18 incisors (ten upper, eight lower), four canines, 12 premolars, and 16 molars. When first encountered, Virginia Opossums typically demonstrate defensive behavior and not until disturbed continuously do they "play 'possum," collapsing into a death-like trance. A 'possum may maintain this catatonic state for an hour or more--seemingly not breathing and with its tongue in the dirt--or it may rouse up immediately after a perceived threat disappears.


Virginia Opossums, Didelphis virginiana, take their scientific name from the state of Virginia (where they occur in good numbers) and the "double womb" of the female, which has a right and left lobe very unlike the single uterus of other native Carolina mammals. (The common name "opossum" is from an Algonquin Indian word for the species.) 'Possums are among our most arboreal animals, using their five forefingers (above left) and thumb-like inner hind toe (above right) to grasp tree trunks and branches. A strongly prehensile tail--pink, scaly, and almost hairless (right)--provides a "fifth hand" that's especially useful when a 'possum dangles from a limb and greedily gathers persimmons and other fruits with its other four appendages. (The tail is also used to transport nest materials such as dry, dead leaves.)

'Possums are opportunistic and omnivorous eaters, dining just as avidly on well-rotted carrion or stinkbugs as on fresh fruits and grains. They also lap up large quantities of water and seldom stray far from a pond or stream. We sometimes find 'possum tracks in soft mud around the perimeter of Hilton Pond, commingled with those of Raccoons. We can only imagine what happens at night when these two species encounter one another; we suspect there's lots of hissing and baring of teeth.

Incidentally, the skulls of the 'possum and 'coon ('possum below left) are of similar size, but the brain case of the raccoon is about five times larger--a sure sign the 'possum is not the smartest of our native mammals. In fact, Virginia Opossums are marsupials, a diverse group of rather primitive pouched mammals not known for innate intelligence. Opossums apparently arose in what is now South America, eventually radiating into their current range long after Australia drifted away and became host to the world's greatest assortment of animals with pouches. In the millennia since, marsupials have diversified, but most have retained low tolerance to cold; even in the temperate Carolinas it's not unusual to see 'possums with ear- or tail-tips ragged and bloody from frostbite.

Virginia Opossums must be--and we say this very conservatively--among the most prolific mammals on earth; just the number of 'possums that become roadkills in the Carolinas each year reaches well into the jillions, and lots more of them apparently survive to reproduce at what seems to be a logarithmic rate.

The only marsupials in North America, Virginia Opossums are found in across the eastern half of the U.S. plus the Pacific Coast states and Mexico, but are only marginally successful in upper New England and the Northern Tier. After automobiles, the biggest enemies of 'possums appear to be dogs and cats, with others being taken by Great Horned Owls, foxes, and humans that hanker for 'possum stew. Curiously, Virginia Opossums are highly resistant to snakebite and numerous diseases, including rabies.

As marsupials, 'possum young are born prematurely and following birth must make their way into the female's pouch for further development. A naked newborn--about the size of a Honey Bee--has an average of seven siblings, but as many as 21 may occur in a litter. Each young 'possum has well-developed nostrils that help it find its way as it scrambles toward the pouch with strong forelimbs; at this stage, the hindlegs are mere buds. When it reaches its destination, the baby 'possum clamps down on a nipple and nurses constantly for 50-65 days of development. At about the two-month mark, the eyes open and the kits--by now fully formed and furred--let go and make short excursions from the pouch, often riding around on the mother's back or tail.

A few years ago, a neighbor brought us an adult female Virginia Opossum that had been killed by a car near Hilton Pond Center. Somehow, the young weren't injured by the accident and continued to tug on the female's elongated nipples long after her death (above). The story ended happily, however, since the neighbor was adept at wildlife care and used baby bottles to feed puppy formula to the squirmy young 'possums for a couple of weeks until they were able to make it on their own.

Our all-time favorite 'possum was a young male we raised in similar fashion 'way back in the 1970s during our biology teaching days at Fort Mill (S.C.) High School. Students took turns carting the baby opossum around during the day in a shoe box and--thanks to a tolerant and understanding faculty--bottle-fed the kit on an hourly basis. The 'possum also went home every night with a different student, each of whom got vivid, unforgettable first-hand information about animal growth and development--to say nothing of how time-consuming it might be someday to care for his or her own child. As the 'possum got larger, we transferred him to a cage in the classroom and fed him mostly cat and dog food. He imprinted on us, of course, and when we placed the 'possum on the ground and walked away, he would run as fast as he could toward the closest human. Reaching his goal, he would climb up a pants leg, keep going vertically, and not stop until perching on top of the person's head--usually wrapping his prehensile tail around the person's ear for stability. The students and the 'possum never seemed to tire of this activity, and everyone was truly sad when the end of the year rolled around and we had to release our now-half-grown marsupial in woods near the school.

In the 25 years since, we've never seen a Virginia Opossum at Hilton Pond that doesn't remind of that former furry friend from Fort Mill, hence our this week's wistful title of: "O, 'Possum, where art thou?"

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
'Possum/person photo courtesy of Marianne Murphy & Allison Woods Foundation

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all
birds banded or recaptured during the period,
plus other nature notes of interest.

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
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Please report your sightings of

8-14 June 2003

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher--3
Chipping Sparrow--1
American Goldfinch--1
Carolina Chickadee--2
Red-eyed Vireo--3
Wood Thrush--1*
House Finch--16
Tufted Titmouse--1
Carolina Wren--4
Downy Woodpecker--1

* = New species for 2003

11 species
36 individuals

46 species
618 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,732 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1)
05/23/01--after 3rd year female

Yellow-throated Vireo (1)
05/11/01--after 3rd year female

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the


--Summer has unofficially arrived at Hilton Pond Center: We collected our first Dog Tick of the season as it crawled up a student's arm on 10 Jun.

--We had two observations this week of an adult Turkey Vulture (with red head) that has been hanging around the Center's old farmhouse, and it's hard to say which sighting was more unusual. On one day, it flew in from the east and perched atop a giant Droll Yankee tube feeder, effectively keeping away all the goldfinches and chickadees for several minutes. A few days later we watched as it sailed across Hilton Pond from the west, heading straight toward us and a 9' x 42' small-mesh mist net we use to catch hummingbirds. We cringed as the vulture hit the net, sure that the bird would tear through and ruin it. Instead the Turkey Vulture got loosely snared, extended its wings to their full six-foot span, flapped once, and within a few seconds flew off to perch in a nearby White Oak tree--perhaps wondering what the heck had just happened.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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