In my back yard, wild sex, violence and child abandonment have been seen to occur.
[The title of this post is not a gimmick, although after blogging now for more than half a year, I am curious to see if including these words will increase the number of hits I get from the search engines.]
I took these photos one morning when I discovered a "situation" under a bush in my back patio. But before I talk about that, I need to clarify a bit of terminology. I looked it up: a male opossum is called a "jack," and not surprisingly the female is a "jill." A baby opossum is called a "joey," just like a baby kangaroo.
Okay, back to my story. To put it delicately, when I interrupted them, this little family was in the midst of, well, producing more of the same. It's not pretty, the way opossums achieve this. I found poor Jill, five Joeys making squeaking sounds and attempting to cling to her fur, while at the same time Jack was busy doing what I guess is probably the only thing that Jacks are good for: making sure that Jill keeps having lots of Joeys. He is not very nice about it. Jill was scratched up quite a bit, and her partner had blood on his front legs and jaws, apparently from a scuffle or perhaps courting ritual that preceded the actual act. Or maybe he just forced the situation. Jack was busy for a good chunk of time, while she seemed more interested in gathering up the kids and moving on. But Jack, who is larger, did not let her go until he was good and ready.
Opossums are interesting. They are nocturnal, have prehensile tails, and the females bear large numbers of very tiny young, of which only a maximum of thirteen can survive, because that is the number of nipples a female has in her pouch. The young live in the pouch until they are weaned, at which time, still small, they ride clinging to their mother's fur until mature enough to get about on their own.
This jill, when I saw her, had five half-grown offspring with her. The joeys were about the size of small rats, and not too different looking, although with their big ears, facial markings and curly tails they're a lot cuter. When Jack was finished and had let go of her, Jill wasted no time in getting away, but in her haste left two Joeys behind. These began to climb into a bougainvillea and call, apparently with the idea of attracting their mother.
This is where I came in. The male opossum lingered nearby, but with no interest in the joeys, except maybe as an "after" snack (I read they do this). There are also cats, owls and grackles in the area who would make a quick meal of these helpless critters. So I did the only thing I thought I could do. After keeping watch from a distance for awhile to see if their mother would return, I gathered the two joeys into a box, where they promptly went to sleep. I kept them in the house until evening, when I set them back in the same place where I had found them, hoping that they might rediscover their mother under the cover of darkness. They climbed into the brush, making the same squeaky calling noises that they had in the morning. I did see and hear an adult zorro in the back patio a little later that evening, but I do not know that happened to the two abandoned joeys.
I often see opossums around, normally at night. Lots of people don't like them, but I have come to be fond of them. They are cute in a slightly repulsive way. They are scavengers, and help keep their habitat clean of dead animals, cockroaches and other insects, and garbage. Opossums also kill and eat poisonous snakes. These animals have a useful role in the environment. And they do "play 'possum." One day I found one rummaging in an area of the garden where I was trying to nurse along some tender plants. I wanted the zorro out, so I grabbed a broom and tried to shoo it away. It rolled over on its back, eyes glazed, tongue lolling out of its mouth, and nothing I could do would rouse it. I left it alone, and a little while later when I checked, it was gone.
I have many more wild neighbors. More about them soon.