Sitting at my desk around 11:00 this morning as I read the news and petted Loki while he slept beside the laptop, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Something scampered along the patio right next to the windows and doors in my office. I couldn’t make out what it was based on peripheral vision, but I knew a small animal was skirting the exterior wall. Based on prior experience, I immediately suspected it was a squirrel. They tend to be the only mammal that will venture into this area during the day that can also fit through the fence (the latter being the most important point since bobcats, foxes, rabbits, coyotes, and badgers can also be seen during the day around here if you’re lucky, but none of them can fit through my patio fence). Squirrels are apprehensive on the patio given it’s an enclosed space. That often means they sneak about trying to go unnoticed; this is a far cry from their antics outside the fence where they can find food and a quick escape up the tree, into the bushes, or in any direction covering a 270° arc.
I immediately rose from my chair and stepped over to the door so I could take a peek. Much to my surprise, it was not a squirrel. I was immediately troubled to see it was a baby opossum. I grabbed my camera and headed out to the patio through the bedroom door (opposite where the opossum was currently milling about).
The little fella was small enough to stand comfortably in my open hand. It was no more than six inches (15 centimeters) from the tip of its nose to its ass. With a tail about 6.25 inches (16 centimeters) long, it’s total length was no more than 12.25 inches (31 centimeters). This was a baby in every respect and was a tiny fraction of the size of adult opossums. Consider this:
That is a two-by-four he’s stepping on at the bottom of the fence. Also, remember the fence’s measurements: lattices form the diamond spaces that are 2.75 inches by 2.75 inches (7 centimeters by 7 centimeters), and the space across each hole from corner to corner (horizontally and vertically) is just shy of four inches (10 centimeters). He was able to step through them both fully upright and with a lot of room to spare. Keep reading for more…
Compare both of those to the infamous opossum butt where an adult animal is already halfway through the fence. Notice the significant difference in size between the two.
If you need to scale the juvenile beast to something you can relate to, here’s some reference material.
To the right of its nose is an almond. Above and slightly to the right of its nose is a pecan half. Everyone should have experience with at least one of those two foods to understand the size involved. What you see below the little guy are various seeds and food items. There are sunflower seeds (both black oil and stripe), corn, and safflower seeds, not to mention the pecan halves and almonds that are visible, and the walnuts that are out of the picture.
I watched as he tried to eat an almond and failed. It was too large and too hard for him to chew. He then tried a pecan half. Unfortunately, he also found those were too large and too hard. While I’ll admit almonds can be a bit cantankerous to the chompers if you’re dentally challenged, at my scale and with my experience, pecan halves are not hard at all. And yet this tiny thing was unable to chew either one of them.
A closer shot of him demonstrates the scale of his body with regards to the corn and sunflower seeds on the ground. It also shows he has no worrisome reflection in his pupils (the reason that’s important I will explain below the photo).
Opossums are active only at night. They generally return to their daytime sleeping place around dawn each morning. I have seen them out just before and just after the sun breaches the horizon, but I have never seen them out in the full light of day like this small one. For nocturnal animals like raccoons and opossums, being out in daylight normally indicates something is terribly wrong. For that reason, I looked for the major warning signs: foaming or excessive discharge around the mouth (rabies), odd reflective colors in the pupils under direct light (distemper), and disorientation, confusion, or shakiness on their feet (rabies and distemper). Nothing amiss was evident.
I stood on the patio and watched as this child moved from edible item to edible item trying to find something to eat. It eventually chanced upon a dried cherry (something I put out for the cardinals). It was large compared to the minuscule monster, so it took some time to eat it all. With that properly masticated and swallowed, it eventually moved on around the corner. While I rushed back inside and to the front door to see if I could surreptitiously intercept the opossum, it was long gone before I got there. Too much brush and cover is available for me to know if it was right there near me or had already disappeared into the area around the lake.
I’m forced to wonder if this was one of the children of Momma Possum. I don’t know how quickly they grow and can’t make an educated guess as to whether it was too small, too large, or just right. Knowing the plethora of wildlife around here, it might well be the offspring of some animal I have never seen in these parts.
Likewise, I’m also forced to wonder why this poor child was out wandering in the daytime. That’s highly unusual for opossums. And yet, it’s not entirely unheard of, so it’s absolutely possible it’s still too young to get the timing right on when to be foraging and when to be asleep. It’s also possible it’s already sick with something unrecognizable to me, or something which as yet has not given rise to recognizable symptoms.
[all photos of a baby Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana)]