Nature's providers: Opossums and dead trees – Democrat & Chronicle


I have to admit that for many years I did not have a high opinion concerning opossums. After all, they are anything but nice looking, more often looking rather ragged and with a “rat-like” tail.
When I looked at those critters up close they always had a mean look with a “snarl-like” mouth. And besides all that, they had a nasty habit of eating birds’ eggs whenever and wherever they found them. And I happened to like birds a lot.
But then I met a professor of wildlife biology at West Virginia University, Professor Brooks, who knew a lot more about opossums, and he sure set me straight, mainly by giving me an assignment that included both research and collecting road kills. And sure enough, I quickly learned all about these “varmints” and how they actually lived and survived.
First of all, “possums” do not contact or carry rabies. Nobody in the scientific community knows exactly why that is true, but it is. There are even believable episodes where a rabid animal attacked an opossum and the opossum remained unharmed by the encounter.
But the real proof is the fact that tens of thousands of road-killed opossums have been scraped up (including my own) and not one has been reported as being rabid.
Virginia opossums, their official name, are the only species of marsupial found here in the U.S. and Canada. There are multiple other species of marsupials living throughout Central and South America.
And as for their diets, it is hard to believe the variety of foodstuffs they can survive on. These include dead animals (including their bones (for calcium)), birds and bird’s eggs, bugs, frogs, and some grains and some plants. And pet owners who feed their animals outside may have observed that these critters also like pet food and garbage, too.
Believe it or not, opossums are immune from the venom of all “pit vipers” such as rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. And they actually seek out and munch on those critters, too.
And there is another rumor that these critters eat ticks. While it is true that they may gulp down ticks as part of their own grooming process, it is probably untrue that they lick ticks off of the faces of deer.
The opossum does not seem to either seek out or run into resting deer, and it is also doubtful that wild deer would allow these animals the opportunity to lick their faces. The obvious truth is that what works in a laboratory under scientific management does not always hold true with animals in the wild.
Are opossums vicious? Their normal appearance, with teeth plainly exposed, may suggest this. But their actions prove they are not at all vicious or even dangerous.
Even when attacked by any of many other wild predators they will play dead (while giving off a rather vile odor), quite often causing the attacker to leave them and search for other, more desirable prey.
It turns out that opossums are probably the best wild animals to have around your home or barn. You really do not have to do anything to encourage them to visit. If you have a compost pile with almost any old foodstuffs mixed in, they will gladly (if cautiously) visit you. And they truly are the most harmless of all wildlife.
During my time at WVU I received an immense amount of forestry knowledge along with my wildlife management and biology class work. And one of the important lessons I received was the different forest management techniques that were available to landowners.
If they wanted timber for industrial use, management was solely for timber yield. But for those landowners who wanted a balanced woodland that included wildlife and timber, other methods were suggested.
One was to leave old or large dead hardwood trees as places for many forms of wildlife to “flock” to. This included leaving the most mature mast trees (oaks, hickory, beech and other nut production trees) standing. Three to six of these nut producers would serve many different species of wildlife. It even includes large standing trees, either dead or alive, as suitable places for many species of birds and mammals.
It is a proven scientific fact that, for most bird and wildlife lovers, many of the most important trees in your woodlot are the ones that are either dying or dead. Large, standing dead or dying trees are an extremely important part of healthy woodlots (including whole forest preserves) and an important habitat characteristic for wildlife. They provide countless places for many birds and mammals to forage. They also provide nesting, perching and roosting areas.
Old dead trees offer important places for cavity-nesting animals (squirrels, raccoons, etc.), birds like woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches, and for bats that roost within cavities during the spring, summer and fall. Crevices and flaky bark provide a food course for countless species that rely on insects, fungi and lichens.
As long as they are not in a hazardous location such as near a road or building, consider leaving these old dying and dead trees for wildlife.
In woodlands where dead and dying trees, also called “snags,” are sparse or absent, it’s possible to create a few by topping, girdling, or simply leaving several mature trees as legacy trees that may become snags in the future. Biologists recommend having at least three to six large snags per acre to benefit wildlife.
These stately spires also add structural complexity, provide an element of visual interest, store carbon, reflect a forest stand’s past, and will enrich soils in the future.
People who own tracts of wooded land can have a major effect on many birds and wildlife. There are professional people who know how to increase wildlife usage inside healthy forests. Generally the state forest service keeps a list of those individuals specifically for increased wildlife usage.
I have personally observed small, medium and large tracks of evergreen trees turned into extremely high quality wildlife and bird habitat. That is why I strongly support quality forest habitat management.
Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoors Columnist. Contact him at lisenbee@frontiernet.net.

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