Opossums Find Cold Comfort in New England’s Winters

Opossums Find Cold Comfort in New England’s Winters

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

Natives of Central and South America, opossums are not particularly well equipped for life in northern New England, and yet they have been found here in increasing numbers since about 1900. Unlike other fur-bearing mammals in the region, opossums have relatively thin coats, and their ears, tails, and feet are virtually hairless.

Besides lacking the proper outerwear, opossums do not hibernate. Except for denning up for short periods during the very coldest weather, they must be out and about all winter searching for food, which makes them extremely vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. In fact, wildlife biologists use signs of frostbite to judge an opossum’s age; a frostbitten tail and ears show that the animal has lived through at least one winter. This far north – central New Hampshire and Vermont and southern Maine mark the northernmost reaches of their eastern range – opossums rarely live more than two years, though they live much longer in warmer climates.

How, then, have they persisted in migrating northward? 

Of the approximately 70 species of opossums, the one that became known as the Virginia opossum is the only one capable of storing fat under its skin and in its tail. The extra bit of fat – paltry compared to the amount of fat a raccoon puts on in the fall – enabled this species to move from Central into North America centuries ago. In the early 1600s, European settlers in Virginia encountered an abundance of these strange creatures, described by Captain John Smith as having “an Head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat.” Even more marvelous, closer observation showed the opossum to be a marsupial, a mammal whose young are born quite small (A newborn opossum is about the size of a lima bean) and continue to develop in the mother’s abdominal pouch.

Beautifully suited to the climate of Virginia, North America’s only marsupial nevertheless continued to expand its range, until 300 years later it arrived in New England. Opossums have large families – between five and fifteen in a litter, with an average of eight – which helps explain its ability to colonize new areas.

Still, such an expansion would have been most unlikely except for the opossum’s ability to live near humans. Frequently called “an opportunist,” the omnivorous opossum can eat just about anything – from fruits, berries, insects, and small mammals to dog food left outside or garbage in dumpsters – and will happily make its bed under the back porch or in a corner of the woodshed. While its preferred habitat is in forested areas close to water, this animal’s close proximity to human habitation has been noted throughout the northern United States.

Unfortunately, we are most likely to see an opossum after it has been killed on the road. Nocturnal creatures, opossums rouse shortly after the sun sets and go out to look for food – often on roadways, where they feed on carrion and risk becoming roadkill themselves. According to studies summarized in Richard DeGraaf and Mariko Yamasaki’s New England Wildlife, human activities such as hunting, trapping, and roadkills account for the majority of opossum mortality. In one study, 35 percent of the animals equipped with radio transmitters or ear tags were killed by cars, while another 13 percent were killed in traps.

Fully grown, an opossum is approximately two and a half feet long, including the foot-long tail, and weighs from five to seven pounds. Encountering a predator or other threat, opossums may hiss and show their teeth but are more likely to run away and hide in a tree or burrow or to play dead. The tracker and naturalist Paul Rezendes describes an opossum he saw being attacked on the road by two dogs: “The opossum literally fell over, as if dropping dead of a heart attack. Saliva drooled from its mouth, and a very unpleasant smelling liquid began oozing from its anal glands. The dogs . . . barked at it, then nipped at it a few times, but the opossum didn’t move a hair.” After Rezendes chased the dogs away, the opossum got up and returned to the woods.

When out foraging or in its den – which can be in a hollow tree or brush pile as well as a human-made shelter – an opossum will be alone. Once the young leave their mothers, at about 120 days old, they are solitary animals and thus forgo even the comfort of snuggling up to another possum during the long, cold winter.

Catherine Tudish is a freelance writer living in Strafford, Vermont.

  1. Larry → in Charlestown, NH
    Dec 29, 2012

    Just wanted you to know that I’ve got two opossums who found a home under my home’s crawlspace, that have been here for about 8 years now. They are Great Grandparents and having known me since birth, are actually quite tame. I just thought I’d mention this, because it seems to me as if your guess on the life span of these little guys is way off. A few of their Grandchildren are also still around and doing fine. They have got to be at least 5 years old, again, making me wonder where the information about them living only one or two years up here came from???

  2. Ned Hatfield → in Freedom, NH
    Jan 14, 2014

    I just saw, about 3 pm,1/13/2014, an opossum eating sunflower seeds under our bird feeders. Temperature is about 40 F. I have a picture. This appears to be very near its northern limit?

  3. Joanna Andros → in Walpole, NH
    Mar 04, 2014

    I saw a possum on the ground near the bird feeder. After a while it started to walk away then turned around and entered my shed, where I saw it disappear through a space in the floor. This was sighted around noon.

  4. Deborah Turgeon → in Newport, NH
    May 09, 2014

    I found an opossum in my Have-A-Hart trap this morning in which I usually catch squirrels. I never expected to see an opossum in it!  Looks like there might have been some frostbite damage to the tail. I let it go.

  5. Lynne Mihaud → in Boscawen, nh
    Mar 06, 2015

    I have a large possum living in my shed overhang who seems to have frostbite on tail -  lacking some fur on his back . He is also eating my bird seed; I see his tracks each day.

    I have a compost pile , even during Winter. He has been there also. My family had seen one last year, not sure it’s the same one.

  6. Butch Berntsen → in Milan, N.H.
    Oct 16, 2015

    Today, I caught one in my front yard - never thought they lived this far north. Seemed harmless enough so I released him back into his wooded habitat.

  7. Carol Barss → in Weare, NH
    Jan 02, 2016

    1/2/2016, 5:30 pm, I went outside and saw a opossum in my back yard eating the old dog food my husband threw out earlier.  I watch it and it went under a tarp that covers my fire pit and glider, which is also near our bird feeder.  I came onto this site to see if it was dangerous to my dog but I guess not so I’ll choke it up to just another one of God’s critters living here.

  8. Steven Walker → in Claremont NH
    Sep 25, 2016

    I have been seeing an opossum/possum out on lawn under apple tree after dark. I was unaware they came this far north.

  9. Tom Bourassa → in Keene, NH
    Jan 29, 2017

    I had one last night go under my porch. 1-27-17. I have a video of one from October of last year by my garden.

  10. Lorry Lachapelle → in NH
    Feb 08, 2017

    I was surprised to see one. My dog would bark fiercely when I let her out at night into her fenced in area. She’s a toy fox terrier. I finally got a glimpse. I started throwing my scraps out for it to eat. An to my surprise there came another. He kept distance, to the other one. Lately I haven’t seen them in a couple days. I’m really concerned. I enjoy watching them an feeding them. It has been bad weather cold snow . An icy I will keep hoping for their return.

  11. Lucy Brown → in Lincoln, RI
    Feb 26, 2017

    I was delighted to spot an opossum feeding in the grass in my backyard one night last fall. It might have been eating leftover parrot kibble that I put out for squirrels and ground feeding birds. Opossums may eat thousands of ticks every day in warm weather so having them in or near one’s yard is very beneficial.

  12. MB → in Hamcock NH
    Mar 25, 2017

    Sounds like most of them are being spotted in the Connecticut River Valley where it is often warmer than further east in NH. We just spotted one in Hancock which is in the colder Monadnock region.

  13. Toni White → in Greenville NH
    Dec 23, 2017

    I saw my first live possum (I usually see them dead on the road) I named Oprah. She was eating bird seed under the bird feeders. She met my dog Ottavio, 22 lb min poodle.
    She was here all afternoon, I hope she stays. Better yet, I hope she survives the next week. The weather is going to be in the single to minus digits at night! She looks young but what do I know?

  14. Kirsten A. Sternlieb → in Richmond, MA
    Dec 31, 2017

    Toni- You can help her!  Put some food out for her, seeds as you have been, as well as other things. They eat pretty much everything, and when the ground is this frozen, there is no where they can find food on their own. And just as important, put something out for her to sleep in.  A cat carrier with some bedding, or something similar.  If you have a barn or shed or garage she could access, that would be the perfect place.  When the weather warms again, she will be on her way, and you will have done a most kind and generous thing by helping such a beautiful and unique creature.  : )

  15. Erin Leith → in Ontario, Canada
    Feb 04, 2018

    We have 3 opposums coming to our back deck.  We call them Billy1 (big boy) Billy2 (medium size) and Little Billy.  Little Billy has frostbite on his tail and licks his feet a lot.  I feed them Ocean Smelts, apples and peanuts mostly.  They seem to live under the Gazebo and deck. It has been extremely cold this winter, down to -25C, and I’m concerned about Little Billy.  Wonder if I should trap him and take him to a wildlife vet.

  16. Fred French → in Northfield NH 03276
    Feb 07, 2018

    I have noticed a baby possum a few years back on my property. Recently I saw a possum in the front yard and I went near it and it just stood there looking up at me so I started talking in a cutesy voice to it and it walked right up to me tipping its head from side to side and when I walked off it then walked back to the woods beside my home. I have a havahart trap set under my bird feeders for squirrels and 3 times in the last week my little possum was in there eating the peanut butter sandwich that was in there for the squirrels. As I type now it is in the trap with the door propped open having its lunch…lol I now call him/her Peaches! I took a furniture blanket and covered the trap except for the door as its snowing and cold and Peaches seems content to wait out the storm. I love seeing Peaches come back day to day.

  17. Pat Stockwell → in West Lebanon, NH
    Feb 24, 2018

    I had a skunk at my compost bin this morning, but noticed some tracks that were not from a skunk. So I just let my dog out at 7:45 PM and thought I would check out by the compost for anything black and white. As I looked down through a grate on my step low and behold was an opposum. I spoke to it and shined a flashlight and it came to peer up at me through the grate. Is it normal for them to have a coat so thin that you can see their skin through it? I thought maybe it was sick.

  18. Dave Mance → in Corinth, VT
    Feb 28, 2018

    Their belly fur is thin, Pat. I’d guess the animal is fine.

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