How to coexist with opossums

We’re all just trying to live our best life

Opossums are often celebrated for their unique nature and appearance, but many people mistakenly view them as simply a nuisance. They are the only marsupials that live in the United States, and they’ve made quite a name for themselves by playing dead to avoid attacks from potential predators.

These creatures are nocturnal and tend to be secretive, venturing out at night in search of food. Their preferred habitat is wooded areas near streams or other water sources. They are also often found in places with mixed habitats, combining forested land with farms and agricultural fields, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

They are considered common all across Illinois, although their population is highest in the southern part of the state, according to Wildlife Illinois. Their numbers can be high in both urban and suburban areas. Opossum populations peak in the summer, when mothers will give birth to a second litter.

Opossums do not often cause problems in our homes and yards, but like many other mammals they are opportunistic eaters and will take advantage of poorly secured garbage and pet food. They are good climbers, because they have opposable toes on their back feet that function like thumbs, according to IDNR. Their tails also help them climb and maneuver.

Ecological effects

An opossum on a wire fence.

Opossums are mesopredators, which means they are both a predator and serve as prey for other predators. They help control the populations of the insects, birds and small animals they eat, and they are also a food source for coyotes, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, owls and hawks, according to Animal Diversity Web.They can be beneficial for gardeners because they eat the insects and other critters that sometimes feast on plants. 

Opossums are not strictly carnivores. They are omnivores, and they also eat fruits, berries and other plant matter. Because of this, they help spread seeds through their scat. They are opportunistic eaters and they will scavenge for animal carcasses, which helps keep habitat areas clean.

Mating and reproduction

An opossum with babies on its back.

Opossums typically breed in January and February, and some may breed again in May, according to Wildlife Illinois. The gestation period for opossums is just 12 or 13 days, and litters usually have seven or eight babies. Baby opossums are only the size of a honeybee when born, and they climb into their mothers’ pouches immediately after birth. There, they will continue developing.

Many babies do not survive long enough to make it to the pouch. Those that do will remain there for two to three months. They’ll remain with their mothers for awhile longer, and then the young opossums will go off on their own just after they are three months old.  

Health risks

An opossum with its mouth open.

Opossums are not a public health concern, according to Wildlife Illinois. They are resistant to rabies, although they can be carriers of it. They can also develop parasitic infections, but these infections pose no risks to humans.

One protozoan infection that opossums can be carriers of, called Sarcocystic neurona, can cause equine protozoal myeloencephalitis in horses when they eat food or drink water contaminated by infected feces. The condition does not cause symptoms in all horses, but those that do have symptoms will require long-term treatment. If you have horses, take steps to prevent infection by making sure your food supply and water source cannot be accessed by opossums, Wildlife Illinois advises.

Problems and solutions

An opossum eating something on the trail.

Opossums are considered a nuisance animal by many people, but they don’t usually cause damage to our homes and yards. They’re often thought to be behind the mischief caused by other critters, such as raccoons and skunks, but they themselves aren’t usually problematic, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

They will occasionally kill chickens on farms, and they can cause problems by getting into garbage cans and eating pet food and bird food stored outside, Wildlife Illinois reports. They may also cause problems for pet owners when they move into sheltered spots under porches and decks, in unsecured sheds and outbuildings and in wood piles and brush piles.

You can avoid encounters with opossums by making sure your garbage cans have tight-fitting, secure lids, storing pet food and bird seed indoors, cleaning up spilled bird seed from under feeders and storing wood away from buildings and fences or at least 1 foot off the ground, Wildlife Illinois advises.

If you want to keep the animals out from under decks and porches, you can dig out a trench at least 10 inches deep around your porch or deck, Wildlife Illinois recommends. Then attach metal mesh or welded wire to the top of your deck, leaving 6 inches to 8 inches remaining along the ground, bended out away from the deck. The trench should then by filled with rock or soil. You can also attach lattice or another decorative cover over the mesh to improve the appearance.

If animals on your property continue to cause problems after corrective measures have been taken, consider humanely removing and relocating them only as a last resort. Trapping an opossum to remove it from your property requires a permit from IDNR. If you do not want to remove it yourself, contact a licensed wildlife control operator to contract their services.

All wildlife in Illinois are under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District of Will County does not treat, rescue or remove wildlife from public or private property. Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Illinois maintain lists of wildlife rehabilitators you can contact for assistance with injured wildlife. 

(Photos via Shutterstock)

Back to Top