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Question of the Week © 2016 Mike McGrath
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Did 'possums' make holes in the ground?
Q. We're attaching photos of some holes that we've just noticed the past couple of days. We have a fenced-in yard and the holes are on the outside of the fence; several holes all along the fence line. Do you know what could be doing this? I know we've had some opossums in the yard lately as our dog chases them away frequently. Could they be the culprit? Thanks for any help you can offer.
----Bob & Peg in Locust Grove, Virginia
A. Luckily, 'help' doesn't seem to be necessary here—at least yet. Holes on the outside of a fence are a curiosity, not a problem. And when a dog is roaming inside a fenced-in yard, any holes are likely going to stay on the 'good side' of the fence. I can't think of a single mammal—or marsupial—that's going to try and encroach on a dog's territory.
But that still leaves the question: Did "O-possums" make those holes? And, perhaps more importantly—can't we just call them possums?
The answer to question #2 is no—if you want to be technically correct, that odd "O" has to stay; the only "possums" are in Australia. And although the name of the species that's native to the United States is spelled with an "O" on the front, Webster's says it's pronounced "a possum", as if the O were a short A.
But probably the only people who use that correct pronunciation are zookeepers, researchers and the members of the National Opossum Society, which has a great series of informational web pages about these weird little creatures, and tries to help people who find injured or abandoned ones.
Okay, now: Did 'a-possums' make those holes?
Probably not. These creatures are mostly arboreal and prefer to live in trees; hanging out on the limbs of the trees in the summer and inside holes and cavities in the winter. But they will use burrows that other creatures have dug in the ground.
So if opossums were trying to get at something tasty—like seed from a birdfeeder or trash in a plastic bag as opposed to a sealed container—but got startled by a dog, they would almost certainly run right into a nearby burrow to hide. But the experts say that the opossums probably wouldn't actually dig the burrows. They're climbers that don't dig big holes. My best guess if the holes are shallow is that they were made by skunks digging for worms or grubs. If the holes lead to actual tunnels, then they were probably made by groundhogs.
But wouldn't big creatures like 'woodchucks' run off the opossums? Maybe—if they were right there and paying attention. But they might be asleep or in another run—or they may have started to dig one of their extensive subway systems and then got scared off by the dog. Or they could have even been on the losing end of a Darwinian struggle. The research I found says that opossums can be pretty fierce when necessary, so they could have fought off a groundhog or two; maybe even eaten one. Several sources report that opossums are great predators of roof rats.
That's right—Roof rats. Really nasty and dangerous vermin; rats that climb up onto a roof and then get into the house that way. And any creature that takes out a rat is a friend of mine—no matter how weird they look.
So I think I'm casting a surprise vote for the opossums here. They don't even seem to be considered major garden problems, as they're omnivores that eat a lot of pests, like roaches, slugs, snails, mice and rats. They will go after fruits, but most sources specify "overripe" fruit. So it sounds like they're more likely to eat dropped peaches or tomatoes than ones that are actively growing.
Evil Squirrels, raccoons and groundhogs are clearly much bigger threats to my gardens and peach orchard. And now that I know that possums eat slugs and rats, I may learn to love these weird little marsupials.
But if you'd prefer to love yours from—let's say 'afar', The National Opossum Society has some advice on keeping their visits to a minimum by cutting off potential food supplies. Keep your trash and garbage in sealed containers; only feed seed to birds in 'squirrel proof' feeders (spilled seed also attracts the much more dangerous mice and rats); don't leave pet food outside…
…and chill. Opossums ARE our only native marsupial; and once again, if they eat dangerous and destructive creatures like slugs, snails, mice and rats, they can wander through my garden anytime they want.