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ginger and cocoa - click to enlarge

The material herein is a summary of information found online about brushtail possums. Further reading can be found through the links at the bottom of this page. An outline of our personal experience with possums can be found in the possum diary. If/when we acquire more accurate and complete knowledge, I will share it here. For now, there's this:

Trichosurus vulpecula: Are they really foxlike? According to the scientific name for brushtails, they are foxlike with hairy tails.

Diet: Leaves, buds, bark, insects, fruits, seeds, tree sap, flowers. They like many human foods and may scavenge compost heaps and garbage containers. It is best to make sure bins are closed so that a possum does not get trapped in a bin. [Personal experience has shown that they like a lot of foods that humans like, and when given a choice are discerning about fresh fruits and vegetables, and show a preference for flavourful or spicy foods over comparatively plain ones. However, if possums are to eat people food, it is probably best to keep it to a minimum to avoid dietary imbalance. Also, it is best not to feed possums - or other marsupials - cow's milk, as they are lactose intolerant. I don't as yet know all the facts.]

Behaviour: Possums are nocturnal, sleeping in tree hollows or similar places during the day. They spend most of their time in trees. Brushtails are solitary creatures. [Presumably, to mate brushtails have to hang out with another possum at least momentarily. We have not seen Ginger hanging out with other possums. When other possums are around, she tends to attack them or hiss at them. She has been an affectionate and tolerant mother to Cocoa, and has never seemed to mind sharing food with her, but it looks like it is natural for a brushtail to have no further contact once the baby is big enough to live independently.] Territory is scent-marked, and defended (or also marked?) with a loud, threatening noise that sounds like a rattling hiss/bark/cough/snore kind of thing. Click the following link for an mp3-example: Blackbeard huffs and puffs (16 seconds, 268kb). Possums also leap at each other, possibly to try to intimidate or injure other possums so that they will leave a territory. Tufts of fur are often pulled out during these attacks, and gashes sometimes occur. If a possum dies, a new possum will claim the territory. For this reason, it is very difficult to have a possum- free existence if you've already got a possum. If a possum nests in your roof, the best thing to do is to put up a nesting box, and close up the hole/s that give/s the possum roof access - at a time when the possum is not in the roof (eg, sometime after sunset). However, a possum will not always take to a nestbox immediately, and even if a possum uses a nestbox, it will alternate with other sleeping places. Perhaps putting up more than one box is a good idea. There are considerably more females than males, but often when habitats are destroyed this balance changes, and males outnumber females. Territories may overlap to some extent, which may result in squabbles. Adult females may leave their territories to their female offspring.

Dominance: Possums seem intent on little dramas in which dominance is established. Females apparently dominate the males. [Blackbeard was intimidated by both Ginger and Cocoa, although he is the largest of the three. Kulfi and Olaf both seemed anxious in the presence of Cocoa, and even little Kwila had made attempts to chase away Queek and Blackbeard while still very young.]

Reproduction: Brushtails usually only have one joey at a time, although sometimes they will have two. The baby is very small and undeveloped when born, but its front limbs are well-developed enough to help it pull itself toward the pouch. The baby will stay in the pouch for 4-5 months, and will then become a back-riding possum. At first, the young possum spends part of the night back-riding, and part in the pouch. Eventually, the mother will leave the young possum on its own for short periods and will also more frequently prefer that it follow her rather than back-ride. [Cocoa was fully independent at approximately 5 1/2 months of age.] We have read that females fare better than males, as males will have to fight to gain their own territory. Our personal experience is that the males fight less than the females in our presence. Males do tend to be more cautious or timid than females when it comes to human contact, though, as if they are used to living constantly on their guard.

Nesting: Observation has shown that brushtails keep their nests very clean - they wait to urinate or defecate until they have left the nest. We have even observed a licking of the walls of the nesting box. [Interestingly enough, a huge pile of leaves was brought into the nesting box after Cocoa had already become a back-riding baby. One possible reason could be that when she was smaller, Cocoa could easily go into the pouch for warmth, but perhaps as she got larger it was more difficult for her to keep warm. Leaves were brought in attached to a branch, and the lot was carried by the tail. To see a video, check out the possum tv page.] Brushtail possums may have quite a number of possum hotels (nests) in their territory. (This depends on availability.) There may be a few favourite nests that are visited most often.

Appearance: Brushtail possums are usually 1-3 kg, but it is possible for them to grow larger, especially in colder climates. Fur varies in colour according to the location. Possums have a clawless opposable big toe (like a thumb) on each hind foot which is called a hallux. Their hands and feet are well-developed and they display much dexterity. The outside of the tail is fluffy, but the inside is long, thin and feels like it is composed of tough, calloused skin. (The tail is not strong enough in itself to suspend the possum's weight - it adds extra support when a possum is in a precarious position.)

Grooming: Possums spend a lot of time grooming themselves, and their fur usually seems to be very clean and soft. There is a history of possums being trapped for their fur. Possums lick their hands after eating (they hold food in their hands when they eat). Their fur is licked. Claws are used like combs to remove dirt and debris and then the claws are licked. Babies and the inside of pouches are licked by the mother, and the babies learn at a young age to start grooming themselves. [We noticed Cocoa grooming herself at approximately 4 months of age, although Ginger continued to help her.]

Lifespan: A brushtail can theoretically live for up to 11 years, but most probably don't make it that long. There is a high mortality rate for young possums. Also, if a mother is highly stressed by a threat or predator when carrying a joey in the pouch, she may abandon (throw) the joey. It sounds cruel and un-motherlike, but if the mother escapes she presumably can bear more young. However, if the baby is old enough, perhaps the mother's behaviour is the opposite of this. [When Cocoa was attacked by a dog, Kwila escaped.] Owls, foxes, carpet pythons, feral cats and dingoes are possible predators. Domestic cats and dogs are also a threat to brushtail possums.

Additional Comments: It is not my intent to promote feeding junk food to possums (or to any wild animals), or a level of involvement that is not ultimately beneficial for the animals. Feeding possums or other wild animals can cause dietary imbalance, and I have read that feeding cow's milk in particular to marsupials can potentially have serious consequences. Many people seem to be against the idea of feeding possums at all, often arguing that feeding them fosters dependence or encourages over-population. [It may be that feeding possums results in more births, eg, two babies per year rather than one? I admit that this is something I don't know.] In addition, certain foods in particular are mentioned repeatedly as being harmful to possums, such as bread and more than small portions of banana. I don't at present feel that I can adequately separate the myths from the facts. When/if I become aware of the facts, I will share them here. I don't feel complacent or justified about feeding possums, however, having contact with possums has added immeasurably to the lives of two very lonely people.

Some of the links below provide info about the most ideal ways to deal with wildlife (usually, it seems that providing nestboxes for various species is recommended), and what to do if you find an injured or sick animal. In most cases, it is best to let an animal heal/recover on its own. A wild animal will often panic if you try to bring it in to a vet, and the resulting complications or injuries may be worse than the original problem. However, if it is relatively easy to pick the animal up, if it doesn't fight back, it is probably sick enough that it needs a vet.

[Note: Possums are considered pests in New Zealand because their numbers are very high, and they are destroying native forests, competing with other animals for food and spreading tuberculosis to cattle and deer. These reasons do not apply to possums in Australia - in part because possums are native to Australia but were introduced in New Zealand. The Australian ecosystem is better equipped to handle possums.]

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Possum-related Links

North Queensland Wildlife Care Inc:
http://nqwildlifecare.org.au

How to make a nestbox (pdf file at bottom of page):
http://www.ipswich.qld.gov.au/environment/conservation/wildlife_of_ipswich/habitat_nest_boxes.php

GK's additional comments/suggestions on how to make a nestbox:
http://xesce.net/gk_on_nestboxes.html

To buy a pre-made nestbox:
http://users.bigpond.net.au/ozbox

Wildlife info and rescue, possums and nestboxes:
http://www.wildcare.org.au/html/home.htm

More wildlife info and rescue, possums and nestboxes:
http://www.nana.asn.au

Sneddo's Possums:
http://dbsneddon.com/possums/