Pretty as a ‘Possum?

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Ilean, AWARE’s ambassador opossum

Pretty as a ‘possum? Now, that’s a phrase you’re unlikely to hear. In fact, whenever I see posts on Facebook by friends who have encountered an opossum in their backyard or carport, a stream of comments inevitably follows about what ugly, rabid, nasty overgrown rodents they are. Recently, a friend who spotted one on her carport (attracted by cat food which had been left outside, but that’s a grievance for another day) received advice to “whack the sh*& out of  it with a board.” Really?! I’m always saddened when I see such posts because if more people understood opossums better and knew what a benefit they are to the environment, they would have a very different perception. I tend to love animals that get a bad rap — like opossums, crows, vultures, coyotes — because once you get to know them, you understand that each species has its own unique intelligence and dignity, as well as its special role to play in the environment. Opossums are actually one of the coolest kids on the block.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, opossums are not rodents. The opossum has the distinction of being North America’s only marsupial. As a marsupial, females bear premature young that migrate to the mother’s pouch (with a swimming motion) to continue their development. Opossum infants are tiny, about the size of a bumblebee — a typical litter of 8 to 9 young fits in a teaspoon. Once inside the pouch, they latch onto a nipple for approximately two months, at which time they begin to venture out. At this stage they will sometimes be seen riding on their mother’s back. By four months of age, they are living on their own, leading mostly solitary lives. With numerous predators and threats from urbanization, the opossum’s average life span is only about 2 years in the wild. 


An injured opossum and her young, rehabilitated at AWARE Wildlife Center and returned to the wild.

Opossums are exceptionally non-threatening and shy.  In the presence of a threat, they will flee if possible. Having worked with hundreds of opossums during my four years rehabilitating animals at AWARE Wildlife Center, I can tell people firsthand that they are one of the least aggressive animals I know. They may have a nasty hiss, but they rarely bite unless tightly cornered. Moreover, opossums are one of the least likely mammals in North America to carry rabies. The reason for this may be that opossums have a lower body temperature than many other mammals, making it difficult for the rabies virus to survive in their bodies. In fact, the occurrence of rabies in opossums is so rare that a cow is more likely to carry rabies than an opossum!


Just admit it — I’m cute!


Opossums are incredibly beneficial to the environment. Their diet consists of all types of insects (roaches and beetles are delicacies), snails, and slugs, keeping our gardens free of pests. Because they catch and eat mice and rats, they also help keep rodent populations in check. By eating rotting fruit and carrion, too, they help to sanitize the environment.  Opossums are also immune to the venom of poisonous snakes and will feed on snakes such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. Not only do they eat many things considered pests by humans, they typically go about their business late at night,  unseen and out of the way.  Because they do not dig, burrow, or destroy property, most people never even realize an opossum has been in their yard. 

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Sebastian, another AWARE ambassador

The opossum has several interesting defense mechanisms. First, it will hiss and bare its 50 teeth (more than any other North American mammal). If this doesn’t work, the opossum may then wobble and begin to drool excessively, tactics intended to make potential predators believe that the animal is sick, and therefore, unappetizing. When these defenses fail, it will “play ‘possum,” slipping into an involuntary comatose state resulting from fear, which often causes predators to lose interest in it. While in this state, the opossum may also release a foul-smelling anal fluid that further deters would-be predators.

Opossums have opposable thumbs, and along with primates, are the only mammal with opposable first toes. This trait give opossums the ability to grasp their food and makes them adept climbers. Opossums also have prehensile tails, which help them to balance in trees and grasp bundles of leaves and grass for bedding materials. (They do not hang from their tails, though – this is a misconception).  In addition, opossums are smart at finding food and navigating mazes, outperforming dogs, cats, and rats in laboratory tests.

Surviving in the wild is tough business, but clearly the opossum is doing something right. In fact, opossums have been around since the time of dinosaurs; their fossils have been found dating back 70 million years!

While the opossum’s often grizzled appearance may not win people over,  hopefully knowing more about this smart, unique animal will help you to see its beauty. The non-releasable opossums I have worked with at AWARE, (like little Ilean, pictured below and at top of page) have been the most docile, sweet animals you could imagine. And they sure are good about eating leftovers! So, the next time you hear people talking smack about an opossum, set ‘em straight, would you?

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Ilean, AWARE’s non-releasable educational opossum, teaches the public about the benefits of her species.




Aloha (Goodbye!) to Plastic Bags!

Have you heard the incredible news that HAWAII has become the first STATE to BAN the use of PLASTIC BAGS at checkout counters?! The ban has already been enforced on the islands of Kauai and Maui, and the ban goes into effect on the Big Island of Hawaii next week. The most populated island, Oahu (home of Waikiki Beach and the state capital, Honolulu), will comply with the ban by July of 2015. In honor of this monumental step, I thought it would be a good time to post about some of the measures my family and I have taken to eliminate plastic bags (and other plastic items) from our lives. I rarely bring plastic bags home from stores, and I haven’t purchased any plastic storage bags in many months. I hope I will never again have the need. It’s not so hard to do.  Here are a few ways to get started:

Invest in reusable containers for school or work lunches:

Options include reusable sandwich bags, hard-sided containers, and thermoses. I found some great, dishwasher safe options at The Container Store, but several other options are out there if you do an internet search for reusable lunch containers/bags. We love Lunchskins bags for sandwiches, and the stackable stainless steel Ecolunchbox is a great option for a variety of foods. I often send dips or yogurt in the small dipping container (which comes with its own lid), accompanied by fruits, granola, veggies, or chips on the side. Don’t forget the reusable cutlery, and skip the juice boxes/pouches and send a reusable water bottle or thermos, too!


Reusable sandwich bags by Lunchskins.


My kids love using an Ecolunchbox. Don’t forget the reusable cutlery! This bamboo set includes chopsticks for added fun!

Reuse what you have:

If you’re like I am, you probably have a drawer devoted specifically to plastic storage bags. There’s no reason not to reuse the ones you already have after giving them a good soapy wash. I find that I rarely have a need for the bags anymore, but when I do, after using them I turn them inside out, wash, dry, and put away for use again. To aid the drying process, my son created a drying rack for me with Tinker Toys, which was a great way to put his creative skills to use!  In addition, numerous grocery items we regularly purchase come in plastic bags that are easy to clean and reuse, like the bags from bread loaves and tortillas (which often have the added bonus of being resealable).


Plastic bag drying rack created with Tinker Toys.

BYOB — Bring your own bags:

By keeping several totes under the front seat of my car, I’ve finally gotten into the habit of bringing my own bags to the grocery story. The habit took some practice (and many dashes back to the car when I’d forget), but I am faithful about it now.  I also keep a compactly folded reusable tote in my purse to use when I am shopping at department stores or other retailers. When I forget to put it back in my purse, I simply try to refuse a bag whenever possible. I know I’ve looked pretty funny coming out of QT with my arms overloaded with milk, ice cream, juice and other miscellaneous items!

Now that I don’t have a steady stream of plastic grocery bags coming into the house, I’ve had to find other ways to dispose of our cat waste, but there is never a shortage of plastic bags around (sadly). Plastic bags from bread, chips, and other snack foods are perfect for pet waste!


BYOB – bring your own bag! Not only to the grocery store, but to other retailers as well. Many bags will fold compactly and slip into a pocket in your purse.

Keep a few straws and reusable utensils in your car, and bring your own take-home containers to restaurants:

Keeping reusable straws and utensils in your glove compartment saves plastic when you are grabbing a quick meal on the go. (When dining out, my family always refuses the straws, but they are handy in the car). On a recent road trip, my family each brought our own reusable bamboo straw to use when we stopped for lunch. Once we got to our destination, we washed the straws in the dishwasher and returned them to the car. (The same company that makes the straws, Brush with Bamboo, primarily sells bamboo toothbrushes, which my family has also adopted in lieu of plastic ones.) Like the straws, the cute pink spoons I reluctantly took awhile ago when we stopped for frozen yogurt one afternoon now stay in my glove box to be used whenever we stop for a frozen treat. I’m still working on trying to remember to bring my own reusable containers to restaurants for leftover food. Maybe they’ll find a spot in my car next!


Reusable straws and utensils stay in the glove box of my car.

Hopefully, we are all aware of the tremendous harms that plastics have on the environment, as well as the fact that recycling them only postpones their impact on the earth, as well as degrading it in the process. If you haven’t watched the heartbreaking footage of the birds on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean, you need to see it: In addition, who has not yet seen the horror stories (like this one here– of  animals like whales and sea turtles who suffer painful, slow deaths after ingesting plastic items inadvertently or mistaking them for food?

I loved the opening to the recent Huff Post article about the big news from Hawaii and will share it here as my hopeful conclusion:  “Imagine a future where endless balls of plastic bags aren’t jammed underneath the kitchen sink, where the idea of a “plastic bag holder” is as quaint as a CD rack, and where that famous scene in “American Beauty” prompts children to ask their parents about the bygone days of plastic bag pollution.”

Can you picture it?!?

What measures have you taken to eliminate plastic bags and other plastics in your daily life? Please share your ideas here!

Hot Winter Nights

Winter is a great time for viewing wildlife. Even in the cold, gray, wet weather that makes many of us cringe and stay indoors, much of the animal world stays active, and the absence of leaves on the trees makes wildlife easier to spot, especially birds. Some animals aren’t hindered by winter’s chill at all, instead finding it the perfect climate to “turn up the heat.” Believe it or not, winter is the best time of the year to observe several species of raptors that begin courtship and breeding even during the coldest and darkest months.

The Great Horned Owl is one of the earliest breeders in North America, beginning courtship calls as early as October and choosing a mate by December. The male attracts the female’s attention by puffing up his white throat and hooting while bowing to her. If the female is sufficiently impressed, she joins in the bowing and hooting, and the birds may remain mates for their entire lives. Breeding typically occurs in January or February with females laying one to four eggs that hatch in about seven weeks. Now is the best time of year to get out and look for these birds, particularly while the bare tree branches make it easier to spot their nests, which are often taken over from hawks, crows, or squirrels. In fact, here in Georgia these owls have already been spotted on their nests, used only when the females are brooding eggs and tending to their young. Be sure to look for the two ear tufts popping out from the top.

Great horned owl

photo: Jim Wilson

Great Horned Owls are not the only owls getting “busy” this season. Barred Owls also begin reuniting with their mates and refurbishing or scouting for nest sites in the cold months of winter. I’ve been hearing the local pair of Barred Owls hooting it up in my neighborhood for the past month, and I have been fortunate to see them roosting together in our neighborhood park the past two winters. I will be keeping my eyes peeled again this season! At AWARE wildlife center where I volunteer, our pair of nonreleasable Barred Owls, Gazer and Tappy, have become increasingly vocal.  As is typical in the wild, Tappy offers food to Gazer, and they are frequently seen preening each other. Gazer must be impressed with Tappy’s attention–she laid her very first egg in late fall (though did not incubate it)!


My local Barred Owls roosting together last February.


AWARE’s educational owls Gazer and Tappy are frequently seen preening each other.

Bald eagles are also early breeders, typically building their nests and laying eggs by mid-February, even earlier in southern states. (During a recent trip to Florida, I saw two bald eagles on their nests on New Year’s Eve!) Eagle’s nests, usually made of sticks and other plant material and found in big trees near large bodies of water, are the largest nests of any bird in North America. These enormous structures can measure over nine feet in diameter and twenty feet in height and can weigh more than two tons! A pair of eagles will typically use the same nest for many successive years. Eagles have a spectacular courtship ritual involving vocalizations and acrobatic flights that sometimes include a spiraling freefall from great heights with interlocked talons. What a thrill it would be to see this amorous display!

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Bald Eagle on a nest in Cedar Key, Florida — 12/31/13

Red-tailed hawks are also getting ready to breed at this time of year by building or refurbishing their nests of twigs, foliage, and other plant matter. Eggs are typically laid in March or April, depending on latitude. Like eagles, Red-tailed Hawks have dramatic aerial courtship displays. The male and female soar in circles calling with their unmistakable shrill, raspy cries. The male dives steeply then rises again, repeating this display several times. The display sometimes culminates with the pair clasping talons and plummeting in a spiral toward the ground before pulling away. Because Red-tailed Hawks are possibly the most common hawks in North America and are well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, careful observers are sure to be rewarded with sightings of these beautiful birds.

Witnessing these powerful birds is a reminder of what an incredibly diverse and magical planet we share. For those inclined to stay indoors in the winter months, several websites with live “nest cams” offer viewers the unique opportunity to watch these birds building nests, brooding eggs, and raising young in real time (see below for links), but how much more fascinating it is to witness it in person! So, before the leaves obscure the treetops, bundle up, grab a pair of binoculars, and keep your ears open and eyes toward the skies!

Recommended Nest Cams:

Watch Georgia’s beloved Berry College Eagles raise their young for the third year in a row. Mom is already incubating two eggs! Or check out the Atlanta Falcons (Peregrine, that is!).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a trove of all sorts of information about birds and has nestcams for several species of birds. Tune in to this year’s livestream cameras here.