Look Who’s Lurking: Opossums in Philly

Unmasking the furry superhero fighting filth, stench, and pests in our streets. 

You know that giant rat you saw the other night? Big as a tom cat, with beady eyes, shadowy fur, and a long naked tail?

That’s no rat! It’s a Virginia Opossum – “possum” for short – and it’s Philly’s only marsupial, carrying its young in a tummy pouch like a kangaroo. Possums are the only native marsupials on the whole continent. They’re very special animals: peaceful, helpful, and tragically misunderstood.

Don’t let the name fool you, the Opossum’s natural habitat extends far beyond the Old Dominion, from Costa Rica to Mexico plus the whole US east of the Rockies, all the way up into Ontario. Possums live nearly everywhere in Philadelphia, from our neighborhoods into our wooded parks.

Expert opportunists, they’ve evolved alongside human sprawl and development to find food and shelter in practically any setting. They eat a huge variety of bugs, slugs, eggs, mice, snakes, toads, fish, birds, berries, mushrooms, and acorns but they lovvvve garbage and roadkill. Nothing is too putrid for them, they have iron guts and no shame.

Possums forage mostly at night, spending their days napping in hollow logs, abandoned burrows, and sometimes in our sheds or under our porches where they might startle a person (and vice versa). A frightened possum may growl, hiss, or show its teeth to get away, but they won’t bite you. If cornered, they will “play possum” – that is, they will fake their own death, and flop to the ground in a limp pile, remaining motionless for several hours if necessary.

Talk about acting! The possum’s mouth goes slack, its tongue hangs out. Its eyes close only partially, reflecting a glazed, blank stare. Breathing slows down so it’s almost imperceptible; it even emits a foul odor. The jury is still out on whether playing possum is an involuntary response to danger or if these guys are totally playing us. Either way, it’s an effective survival tactic, as many predators instinctively avoid dead prey.

Possums are quiet, solitary creatures: adults only interact during breeding season, and after mating the female chases the male off. A possum pregnancy is only 12 – 13 days, the shortest of any North American mammal. The mother gives birth to 5 – 13 pink, hairless “neonates” about the size of a honey bee.

Blind and deaf — but with freakishly strong forearms — these teeny-tiny babies claw themselves upward to their mother’s pouch, where they’ll spend the next nine weeks nursing (and increasing their weight 10x).

In 8 to 10 weeks, the litter will outgrow Mom’s pouch. Youngsters take turns riding on her back, learning how to hunt and scavenge as they follow along in her day. Thumbed hind paws and long, prehensile tails help them hang on tight through it all, developing the skills they’ll need to be expert, agile climbers as adults.

Juvenile opossums are ready to fend for themselves at three to six months old, when they’re about as big as a ferret. They’re considered full grown at one year, the age most females can breed.

Possums don’t live long in the wild, only about a year and a half. They’re preyed on by foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls. Possums also frequently get hit by cars, and they face a lot of intentional violence from humans as well. We hunt and trap them, but also many homeowners freak out when they see them, and call the exterminator. How sad! Possums are a beneficial species worth learning to live with.

Nature’s clean-up crew, they eat up rotten food and dead things in hidden places that would otherwise attract vermin and spread disease. Unlike other garbage-eaters like skunks and raccoons, possums have a natural resistance to rabies – seems their body temperature is too low. They don’t attack pets or spread diseases like distemper, parvovirus or feline hepatitis. They don’t fight, chew wires, or hoard food in your walls. They consume a ton of pests.

Still, if possums bother you (they can be a little messy), there are lots of other solutions than murdering them. Motion-activated lights or sprinklers, for example, can be a very effective deterrent, as can noisy windchimes which offend their sensitive hearing. Simply taking away their hiding places also works wonders, along with removing any regular food sources.

Clear out brush and debris, fix holes and other points of entry, block off areas under sheds and porches. Secure trashcan lids. Pick up fruit that falls from trees, bring bird feeders in at night if you have to. Clean outdoor grills and grease traps. If there’s nothing to eat and nowhere to hang, the opossums you encounter are just passing through. They bring you no harm.

Next time you think you see a giant rat on your deck – stand down! It’s probably just your friendly neighborhood possum, making the rounds. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a fascinating regular visitor, and a personal window into the animal kingdom alive around us.


  • A male opossum is called a jack. A female is called a jill. Babies are called joeys. And, a group of opossums is called a passel.
  • Possums don’t build dens or nests but rather take advantage of existing shelters in their environment. They rarely spend more than two consecutive days in the same place.
  • Opossums are sometimes called “grinners” because their wide mouths are slightly curved with prominent teeth resembling a smile.
  • Possums have 50 teeth — more than any other North American mammal.
  • Opossums can only run about 4 mph; they are strong but slow swimmers.
  • Possums can’t see or hear well; they navigate the world primarily by touch and smell.
  • While possums don’t seek out ticks as a food source, they do consume thousands of them every season that they groom from their fur.
  • Contrary to popular belief, possums don’t hang by their tails to sleep (they can only hold themselves up like that for short periods).
  • Male possums (like other marsupials) have a two-headed penis.
  • A possum’s tail is like an extra limb that can grab things and carry stuff around.
  • Possums have a special protein that neutralizes snake venom, which science has reproduced in mice.
  • According to American naturalist John James Audubon, opossum meat tastes like pork.
  • “Possum Trot” is the name of a bluegrass band and also a historic town in Kentucky.
  • “Possum up a Gum Stump” is a famous Appalachian folk song dating back at least to 1830.

Safe Spaces: Finding a New Home for Porch Possums in South Philly

From the “Possums of South Philly” Facebook page, a neighbor posted last month about relocating a passel of possums on her porch: 

Kristina F. New at this – momma possum has lived in my backyard for 2+ years w/o any assist from me. Preparing for some yard work and need to give her (+7 babies) a new nest. I may also be looking for re-lo ideas in the next month but TBD. For now, what kind of material can I use to entice them out of my enclosed outdoor cabinets and into an alternate safe space?

Hannah A. @Kristina F. Sounds like you are the “alternate safe space”. When the babies are big enough, mom will chase them away. Maybe do it then?

Kristina F. @Hannah A. Thank you – any idea how long that could be? I’m not sure if my photo gives you a sense of their age.

Mary R. @Kristina F. From what I’ve read, possums normally stay with their mother for about a year, but if something goes wrong and they are separated, the babies who are at least 7” long (not including the tail) are big enough to survive on their own.

Kristina F. I’m in the process of renting my house and just don’t know if a new tenant will be as kind. Just want them all to be safe.

Gail P. @Kristina F. Ah, I see! If it was me I would be excited. 😁 But you’re probably right. I’ve wondered how my neighbors would react to knowing they’re out there. They should be excited because we have zero roaches now that my alley is part of their foraging rotation.

I’ve read a little about opossums once I saw mine show up. They apparently don’t really make nests like a raccoon or a squirrel does. I’d guess they have known spots that are safe and warm for sleeping, but this spot in your yard shouldn’t be the only spot they have. I’d think noise and activity would deter them. Maybe some essential oil scents could deter them too?

Mary R. Possums like to inhabit the shelters built for outdoor cats. Try a large styrofoam cooler with a hole cut in the side.

Christina H. Those guys are the best natural pest control techs. They’ll eat ticks, beetles, mice, they are also venom resistant and they don’t carry rabies.

Whitney G. When I lived in the country a family of possums took up residence in some old rabbit hutches we had in the back of our property,

Pete H. Had one living under the house for 4 years with the cat, he still comes out when it gets dark and goes about his way…….

Adam A. They grow so fast, as long as you’re not feeding them they’ll be gone soon

Stephanie D. I am incredibly jealous. This is what I want.

Hannah A. PS thanks for doing right by them.💖

We hope you have enjoyed this month’s Local Wildlife Feature. Thoughts? Questions? Please leave in the Comments below. Check out last month’s spotlighted species, Community Cats, and learn fascinating facts about Philly’s feral kitty situation including real hope for better days ahead. 


There once was a possum named Fred
Who often played like he was dead.
With a trick so divine,
He’d lie there supine,
And fool all the folks in his stead.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.