Though the Virginia opossum (Didelphus virginianus) may spend several days at a time holed up in a den during these cold winter months, it does not truly hibernate. (True hibernation allows an animal to remain inactive, in a torpor. Its breathing rate slows, its temperature drops and it does not eat.) Since the opossum remains active, it must eventually emerge from its den to search for food to sustain itself.
Mainly nocturnal, the opossum will wander through an area at night and feed on almost anything it finds: plants, fruit, insects, snakes, frogs, small mammals and carrion. It has adapted well to human habitations, feasting on our household garbage and the carrion we provide in the form of roadkill. At this time of year it is not uncommon to turn on a porch light in the evening and discover an opossum under your bird feeders as it feasts on the fallen seed.
An opossum is easily recognized by its pointed white face, gray coat and rat-like naked tail. This prehensile tail serves it well; it can wrap around branches as the opossum climbs trees, acting as a fifth appendage. The opossum can also coil its tail around a bunch of leaves to carry this nest material to a den site. But in the dead of winter the opossum’s tail can be a hindrance.
Frostbite is a common occurrence in opossums during severe winters. Not only their tails, but also their naked ears are at risk. You may have noticed an opossum in your neighborhood that looked a little odder than usual and realized parts of its ears and/or tail were missing. It was most likely a victim of frostbite.