Opossums smarter than we think

OPOSSUMS are common, consistent and enduring members of North America’s wildlife. First noted and described by settlers along America’s east coast, this critter lives in Central America and southeast portions of the United States. It has spread its population base gradually over time to more places west and northward. They are adaptable to living close to people, their farm animals and love anyone’s garden for night time snacks. They are common inside urban centers where outside food provisions for household cats and dogs becomes an additional night time buffet line. Because they have little body fat, they cannot “hibernate” like some other mammals, and must forage all year long no matter the season.

They are marsupials, animals with a pouch where newly born yet undeveloped young must crawl into, find a teat to attach to, and continue their development.

Once breeding has happened, it takes just 12 days for the young to be born. Crawling toward and then into the mother’s pouch is critical if the young are to have any chance of survival. Five to 10 bumblebee-sized pups make the journey. Inside the pouch, they find warmth, food and protection from outside elements. The ability of the mother’s pouch to close tightly allows the mother to swim without water entering to surround her offspring. Then when back on dry land, the pouch opening relaxes to allow air inside.

It takes about 60-70 days for the young to crawl outside for brief explorations of their new world. Being mouse sized at this time, they can easily go back to the pouch whenever they wish. That is until more time and growth prevents re-entry. At 80-90 days of age, the young will cling to the mother’s back fur and take rides with her wherever she travels in search of food. Sharp claws, long flexible toes and a somewhat prehensile tail allow the pups to hang on for the ride.

Home is a den site, an underground burrow or maybe a hollow tree trunk, or anyplace as long as it is dry. And once the babies are 3 1/2 months old, they will begin to leave the den on their own. Soon afterwards they disperse, finding new territories of their own. During all of these movements about the landscape, mortality is high due to dogs, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, hawks, eagles and owls. Young opossums are the most vulnerable. Car kills along roadways is also quite noticeable. Any opossum living past two years of age is considered an old and lucky survivor.

When frightened or cornered by potential predators, this animal may ‘play possum’ to fake death. Prior to that it may hiss, growl and bare some of its 50 teeth. Or it may try to escape by climbing a tree as did the subject in today’s photo made at the Marietta Sand Prairie last week. If a play dead opossum is encountered, it can stay in its self imposed catatonic state for several minutes to several hours. But the rest of the story is that this animal is not dead. In fact its body functions and mental alertness are in full active mode, continuing to sense its outside world. When the perceived danger has passed, the opossum slowly readapts to its food searching duties.

For the record, we have all seen drawings of opossums hanging only by their prehensile tail. This is not a true depiction of this animal. Yes, it does use its tail to stabilize its body if climbing trees or along branches. Its feet, long toes and sharp claws are what prevents this animal from falling. The rear feet have opposable thumbs to help wrap the paw around twigs or small branches.

If you should be so fortunate to cross pathways with an opossum during an outdoor hike or bike ride, do stop and admire this furry critter, take a few photos, and then be on your way while the opossum continues its duties of living and surviving as our only North American representative of marsupial animals.

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Last week I told of how young people at school who are lucky enough to have the option to participate in NATIONAL ARCHERY in the SCHOOLS PROGRAMS can, if good enough in this sport, go on toward state and national competitions. Winners can earn scholarships that can go a long way toward higher education pursuits.

Here are a few follow up details about the school archery endeavors to learn from. NASP has been adapted in 47 states, eight Canadian Provinces and 11 countries. More than 13,500 schools are involved in NASP. In a single school year, 2.23 million students see the fun and potential future of this activity. NASP is bigger than little league baseball! Sixty-five percent of the participants say they will be archers for life. Follow up surveys with teachers say that NASP improves student motivation, concentration, behavior and self-esteem. And the teachers go on to rate the effectiveness at 93 percent, 84 percent for confidence, 78 percent for motivation, 76 percent in the attention category, 74 percent in regards to behavior and lastly, 73 percent for increasing positive attitudes.

Approximately 200 Iowa schools are using National Archery in the Schools Program equipment and time as a learning/teaching tool. Iowa students number at least 44,600 who have experienced bow and arrow target shooting challenges.

How far can NASP take a student? In the State of Kentucky where NASP is really popular, the Spring 2015 three day nationals championships came down to two students competing for the top prize. The two were tied all the way until the last two arrows, their final shots. The winner’s arrow was right on. The other competitor’s arrow was only one-half inch off of the inside circle and therefore took second place. The winner walked away with $20,000 of scholarship funds! The full house observation deck seats had been quiet and dignified during the entire tournament. As the last arrows hit the bullseye, pent up cheering was released as the crowd shouted and whistled their approval. Everyone was smiling including the second place winner that took home a very nice big dollar prize. Neat stuff indeed.

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TROUT STOCKING is on the list for SAND LAKE on April 23. I just thought you’d like an early bird tip of what is to come when warm weather of spring has settled in to stay. DNR fisheries bureau folks plan these fish stocking events as an on-going popular excitement creating activity. The timing is important as water temperatures are still cold but have warmed enough to be within ranges tolerated by rainbow trout. The fish are easy to catch and very good to eat. Trout fishing comes to you rather than you having to drive to northeast Iowa to partake. Anglers need a valid fishing license and pay the trout fee to fish for and posses trout. A trout fee is good all year long. Trout fishing is an excellent ‘hook’ for people needing another excuse to be outside. More details of the Sand Lake trout release will be available as the date draws closer. Stay tuned.

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IOWA’s DEER CLASSIC is next weekend in Des Moines. Doors open Friday afternoon, March 4, at 4 p.m. for the filled to capacity Hy-Vee Hall convention center. Saturday and Sunday are big days for visitors. Friday afternoon crowds are good sized but not as aisle packed as the weekend. Plan accordingly.

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“Desire is the starting point of all achievement.”

– Napoleon Hill, writer

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.