Attempted murder with eyewitness

Opossum

The oppossum was about again this evening. He (or she – you can tell sex by size, but there’s overlap, and the measurements I’ve read are in weight, not length, which is difficult to gauge without picking the animal up) actually showed up late afternoon, when there was still a couple of hours of daylight left. I spotted him sitting on a low branch in the crabapple tree behind the house, near the feeders, just chillin’. Perhaps waiting for dusk? We put out some wet cat food near the base of the tree where he would eventually need to come down to. He let me get exceptionally close, perhaps five or six feet, and just kept an eye on me. I really hope he’s finding enough to eat. I know from my experience working with wild birds that it’s often hard to judge a malnourished animal simply based on appearance, sometimes all the layers of fur or feathers can disguise their actual body shape (ever washed a cat? They go from looking like a robust, sleek predator to a rather good imitation of the proverbial drowned rat).

Dark-eyed Junco

When I arrived at my parents’ this morning, there were birds singing. Even though we got another dump of snow over the weekend and the snowbank at the foot of the driveway is now probably 7 feet high, and Mom has dug laneways (they’re more than just paths, they’re bordering on tunnels) into the foot-and-a-half of snow around the feeders (I’m sure there’s more snow below, but it’s been compacted enough to walk on), and the temperature today was below freezing… despite all that, it felt like spring was on the air, and the birds seemed to sense it. Chickadees were singing their typical “fee-bee” song (I’ve always thought it sounded more like “hee-hoo”, but that’s what most field guides say, anyway). Several juncos were singing their beautiful bell-like trill, the first juncos I’ve heard singing this spring (mark it on the calendar!). Even the nuthatch was getting into it by adding his fast “ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh!” interspersed between his slower “ainh, ainh, ainh” calls. The juncos were staying rather well hidden in the spruce trees when I went out to try to capture one singing. This was the best photo I could manage, which would actually have been decent if it weren’t for the twigs in front of his face. That’s bird photography for you.

Bowl of Zick dough

I made Zick dough yesterday, and brought it with me to put out this morning when I arrived. My mom had a little dish that had originally housed hens-and-chickens one summer, but which was later used for birdseed, and then retired. It seemed appropriate for putting the suet dough out in, so I filled the bowl up and put it out in the middle of the feeder array. This is what it looked like all day. I may try moving it closer to one of the active feeders in the hopes of attracting some attention tomorrow. It may help that they’re calling for (yet more) snow tomorrow morning.

My dad was heading out this evening when he heard some screaming coming from behind the house, and glanced over just in time to witness an aborted murder attempt (a caution that the following images may not be suitable for everyone, although there’s very little in terms of graphic detail).

Weasel attack on rabbit

I went out with my camera to see if I could reconstruct the crime scene. The first thing I noted was the location where the attack had taken place. Fairly evident from the deep impressions in the snow, and a couple tufts of fur sitting lightly on the surface. Looking closer, some speckles of blood, but not a lot. I see some rabbit tracks to one direction, but it’s difficult to discern the tracks of the predator. Evidently a light-footed creature, but its identity is a mystery.

The deeper impressions in the snow look like the rabbit was forced onto its side, but it’s hard to tell. You can see what might be the marks of a face and ear one one side of the elongated body shape, and a long tail mark to the other side. But it’s not distinct, and I’m only guessing.

Weasel attack on rabbit

Looking at the tracks coming in, it appears the rabbit was coming from the shelter of the spruce trees across the open snow with the intent of picking up the packed-down trail at the side of the barn and following that. The other tracks, what little I can see, seem to suggest that the predator was lying in wait just behind a hole at the bottom of the barn door, and leapt out to great the rabbit as it approached. The rabbit put the brakes on in an attempt to turn tail, but wasn’t fast enough, and was pushed onto its side, where the predator managed to tear out a bit of fur. My dad coming out of the house at a rather inopportune time startled the predator and the rabbit’s life was spared by some rather lucky timing. Although, by the same token, the predator was denied its meal by some rather unlucky timing.

Weasel tracks?

That would be about all I’d be able to tell just from the tracks in the snow. However, add in the eyewitness account of my dad, and the predator is revealed to be a weasel in its sleek white winter coat. I am very sad that I missed seeing the whole drama, not least of all because of the characters involved. I’ve only ever seen a weasel once, also in winter, as a long, narrow, white flash zipping across the road. Not much of a look. I’m not sure we’ve had a record of a weasel at my parents’, either. If we have, it would’ve been many years ago.

Short-tailed weasels are circumpolar, meaning they’re found throughout the entire northern hemisphere. They’re called stoats in Europe, and in their white winter coat are usually referred to as ermine. Long-tailed weasels are restricted to the Americas. I’m not sure which species the individual would have been, but I’m guessing short-tailed (the smaller of the two) based on my dad’s description of the event in which he suggested the weasel was “holding on to the rabbit’s foot” or something similarly small-animal-ish. Both species eat rabbits, and the short-tailed was actually introduced into New Zealand in a misguided attempt to control the island’s introduced rabbit population. Instead, the weasel has nearly single-handedly threatened or caused the extinction of several endemic New Zealand bird species. Of course… you can’t blame it, it’s just being a weasel.

Apasum at the feeder

Possum at feeder

Last night, at dusk, we had a surprise visitor to my mom’s feeders. Opossums live in the woods around my parents’ and make regular appearances at the front porch to nibble on the dry cat food left out for the stray. They’ll occasionally stop at the seed spread out on the driveway on their way through, but I’m not sure I’ve seen them under the feeders before (of course, I’m not there very often these days, and Mom may have observed behaviour I haven’t). They’re generally nocturnal, so to have one out in the daylight is unusual. It may be that all this extended snow cover has made it rather hungry and prepared to resort to abnormal behaviours to get food.

Possum at feeder

It was chowing down on what I took to be suet droppings from the suet feeder overhead, but which could also be seeds spilled from the sunflower seed feeder. The birds that visit the suet feeder would be likely to dislodge pieces of suet as they’re pecking at it, though, which is why I presumed that. They have diets similar to raccoons, being omnivorous and opportunistic in nature, eating small rodents, amphibians, insects, eggs, various fruits such as apples, and will even scavenge roadkill (which often results in them becoming roadkill themselves). They have 50 teeth, which is the most of any North American mammal.

Possum at feeder

Formally called Virginia Opossum, but colloquially often referred to simply as “possum”, they’re the only marsupial in North America. Like the well-known kangaroos of the Australian outback, they carry their young in a pouch on their belly for nearly two months (incidentally, the opossums of Australia are a totally different scientific order, but bear the same name for their similarity to the North American animal – the name “opossum” comes from an Algonquian word, “apasum”, meaning white animal). The pouch faces backwards in possums, because when the young are born (after only 12-13 days gestation! They’re so small when born that the whole litter will fit into a teaspoon), they must pull themselves, grabbing the mother’s fur, into the mother’s pouch and find a nipple to feed from. They remain attached there for several weeks. Opossums have thirteen nipples, arranged with twelve in a circle and one in the centre.

Possum tail

Possums have prehensile tails, which they can use to grab branches with when climbing. Their tails are very rat-like in appearance, lacking much hair and having a somewhat scaly appearance. Because the lack of hair on their tail and eartips are not a great winter adaptation, their tailtips will usually freeze in the winter, and it’s extremely unusual to encounter a possum that has survived the winter with its tail intact. You can see this individual has lost the tip from its tail, but some may lose up to half their tail in the winter from frostbite.

As their name implies, they are historically a species of the southern North America, and range through Central into South America. In North America, their range has slowly been spreading north as the expansion of human settlement has allowed them to survive otherwise harsh winters by providing ample food supplies. They’re now found into southern Ontario, northern Minnesota and New York. A disjunct population was introduced to California in 1890 and now occurs along the west coast as far north as Vancouver area.

Possum hands

Possums have extremely dexterous hands, with long, slender fingers, similar to those of raccoons. The pattern of pigment on their hands reminds me of fingerless gloves. Their hands are designed for manipulating food and other objects, and are too delicate to do much digging. As a result, opossums will take over old burrows or tree cavities that are already formed by natural events or other creatures.

Possum feet with opposable toes

Their back feet have opposable “thumbs”, like our hands. You can just see them in this photo, particularly the right hind foot, sticking out at a 90 degree angle. They use these toes for gripping branches which aids in climbing and foraging in trees. Because of this unique feature, possum tracks are very easy to identify.

Possum at feeder

Like most animals, possums have extremely long whiskers that they use for sensing their environment. They keep these whiskers folded back against their face when not foraging or moving.

Of course, the possum’s most infamous feat is to feign death in the face of danger (the basis of the phrase “playing possum”). Apparently involuntarily prompted by extreme fear, the possum will go into a catatonic state with its eyes open and tongue lolling, and its breathing slowed to nearly undetectable. It even goes so far as to excrete a putrid green fluid from anal glands. It can remain in this state up to four hours in extreme cases. The idea is to discourage predators who hunt live prey, but of course this doesn’t work so well with vehicles, and the defense loses its effectiveness on roads.

A lot of people find opossums to be rather ugly, but I think they’re cute and certainly unusual animals of our landscape, and I’m always pleased to have one visit.