Distribution & Abundance |
Habitat | Habits
| Foods |
Reproduction | Conservation
adult opossum is about the same size as a house cat, but with much shorter legs.
Total length ranges from 24 to 33 inches. Adults weigh from 6 to 15 pounds. Males are
usually larger than females. The opossum has a narrow, tapered head with a
pointed muzzle, pink nose, black eyes and bluish-black ears that lack hair and
look leathery. The long, scaly tail is black near the base and fades to a
yellowish white or pale pink about one fourth of the way to the tip. Both the front and
hind feet have five white or pink toes. The inner toe of each hind foot is
clawless and thumb-like. The dense, woolly underfur of most opossums is creamy
white with grayish tips. The long outer hairs are dark gray or black. This
combination gives most opossums a grizzled gray appearance. A few are almost
black while others are very pale gray or nearly white.
Distribution & Abundance
Opossums are common and found throughout Illinois. They tend to be most
abundant in the southern part of the state, especially along the Wabash,
Mississippi and Ohio rivers. High numbers also occur in some urban areas.
Populations can exceed 200 opossums per square mile in favorable habitats. On a
seasonal basis, numbers are lowest in late winter. They peak in midsummer with
the influx of young from second litters.
Wooded areas near streams provide good habitat. Farm fields mixed with
patches of woods tend to support more opossums than large expanses of forest or
cropland. Opossums prefer areas near permanent water such as ponds, lakes, swamps,
streams and rivers. They seek shelter in the dens or nests of other animals,
sheds or old buildings, cavities in rocks, brush piles, trash heaps, dry
culverts, hollow trees and fallen logs. They sometimes line their dens with
leaves, grass or corn husks.
Opossums are slow, secretive and solitary. They venture from their dens at
night to look for food, traveling distances of 1/2 to 2 miles depending on food
availability and the time of year. They're observed frequently in the glare of
automobile headlights as they eat other animals killed by traffic (and often
suffer the same fate).
Opossums tend to wander a great deal and shift their home sites frequently, but
most spend their lives in an area 10 to 50 acres in size. Opossums do not
hibernate, but stay denned up during extremely cold
weather. Opossums are well adapted for climbing. The opposable toe on the hind
foot acts like a thumb, allowing them to grasp small branches. An opossum can
hang by its tail for a short time if at least half of the tail encircles a thick
Opossums often climb trees or hide in brush heaps when chased. They are well
known for "playing 'possum". When frightened and unable to escape, an opossum
rolls over on its side, becomes limp, closes its eyes and lets its tongue hang
out of its mouth. The heartbeat slows down and the animal looks dead, causing
many would-be predators to lose interest. This reaction is caused by a nervous
shock, but the opossum recovers quickly and takes the first opportunity to
Opossums are omnivorous (eat both plant and animal matter) and not very
finicky. The animal portion of its diet often includes insects, dead animals,
birds and their eggs, frogs, snails and earthworms. They also eat fruits and berries, especially during fall and early winter. Corn
important part of their diet during winter. Bird food and leftovers thrown out
with the trash are common fare in urban areas.
Opossums reach sexual maturity at about one year of age. The breeding
season begins in early February. Most females have one litter per year, but some
have two. First litters usually arrive in late February; young from a second
litter are born in late July.
Hunting and trapping are regulated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to
keep populations from declining and make sure that young and mothers are protected. Few people try to improve habitat specifically
for opossums because they're abundant and adapt easily to a wide range of
habitat conditions. Measures that maintain woodlots, fencerows and hardwood
forests are beneficial, as are
forestry practices that leave some old trees
uncut during logging operations.
Many urban homeowners have a dim view of opossums because of their rat-like
tails and prominent teeth. In actuality, they're rarely aggressive, cause little property damage and should usually be left alone. Their presence can be
discouraged by removing food and other attractions near your home; see
Wildlife Out of Your Home" PDF.
Hunting and Trapping Furbearers