If you are a regular reader of Naturespeak you are probably beginning to think that I have some sort of opossum fixation about now. I’ve featured opossums many times over the years and just recently went on a blab fest about casting a ‘possum track in the snow (although technically that blog was about track casting – not ‘possums). But, on the other hand, if you insist on reading this stuff then the blame isn’t all mine is it?
Well, you’ve got me. I do like opossums. Love is far too strong of a word. Like will do. As a young lad, one of my favorite Audubon mammal paintings was that of a “Virginia Opossum” plucking succulent persimmons off a branch. There was something exotic about persimmons to my young mind. The fact that they were being eaten by North America’s only marsupial was icing on the cake. I even tried to replicate that image in one of my early paintings, although the creature was placed on a northern black walnut branch instead. It was really easy to get a specimen to draw from because ‘possums were (and still are) born dead on the side of the road. If J.J. Audubon were alive today he would spend lots of time cruising the highways to pick up his specimens – if nothing more to save on black powder costs. If he were in Germany, there is no doubt which stretch of highway he would frequent. There are no ‘possums in Germany, but then again Mr. Audubon would quickly have tired of opossums in the modern age anyway.
When I spotted a treed opossum recently, I was reminded of these random ‘possum memories and thoughts. Actually the thing was originally pointed out to me by someone else, but so what – I captured the moment. This time I was armed with a camera and my medium was digital bytes of color. The results are much better than my earlier acrylic efforts.
I’ve known of this especially large creature for some time now. His meaty footprints were all about the Marshlands Museum grounds every time the winter weather eased up a bit. One of the peculiar traits of his track evidence are the frequent comma-shaped tail drag marks in the snow (see here). All ‘possums leave tail drags, but these were scribed like short jabbing stick marks. Upon seeing the beast in the flesh, the explanation of these marks became quite evident. Like most of his kind, his naked tail is badly frostbitten. The tip is blacken and turned down like a burnt match. This is the portion that pencils in those odd punctuation marks.
These animals are still not adapted to northern winters so their naked parts often freeze off. They are natives of the southern persimmon belt after all. Southern opossums have huge leafy ears and nice looking tails, but otherwise are identical to their northern cousins. There is no need to feel sorry for our local ‘possums, however, because they are tough. They can eat everything and anything – dead, alive, or inbetween. Tiny frozen crab apples will do when fresh persimmons are not available.
This fellow was investigating the remaining fruits on an ornamental crab apple. Carefully balanced, and well supported by his tail, he would venture out as far as the supple limb would support him. The stalked fruit was pulled closer with a sweep of the paw and deftly nipped off. Here was a living representation of Audubon’s image with the fruit scaled down to Michigan proportions.
He paid little attention to me until I approached the base of the tree. He then stopped and, as ‘possums are so wont to do, starred me down. There was no emotion behind those beady black eyes and rosy nose, only patience. He starred at me vacantly and remained motionless until I left (Frankly, he bored me to death which is a ‘possum defense tactic). Up close he was an ornamental opossum in an ornamental crab tree – placed there like a stuffed toy. From far away he looked more like a shopping bag caught up in the branches, but a familiar shopping bag.