Throughout the night critters come out of their dens and traverse beaten paths in order to find food and mates. The suburbs are surprising rich with night wanderers. Critters such as opossums and skunks are beneficial to your garden. Understanding who they are and what they do may convince you to welcome them into your yard.
Prehistoric gaping maw, ugly rat like monsters… They may look the part, but their nature is quite the opposite of their outward appearance. The opossum is avoidant by nature.
The most puzzling and ingenious thing they do when threatened, is fall over, defecate, start drooling, release an awful smell like death, and lie there and act dead for up to 4 hours. (Apparently, the first sign of awakening is a twitch of an ear!). But I digress…
The opossum is North America’s only marsupial, meaning it cares for its young in a pouch until they are old enough to crawl onto her back. When the time is right, they let go and find their own way.
Opossums are omnivores; they will eat just about anything. Their main diet is insects, snails, rodents, berries, ripe fruit, grasses, leaves, ground eggs, sometimes snakes, and other vegetables.
Opossums really are helpful. There is nothing worse than a snail infestation in the garden (There are around 280 species of snail in California alone!). Opossums eat snails. The opossum will also keep rat and mice populations down.
Opossums are gentle creatures, preferring to avoid confrontation. When annoyed, they will open their mouths and hiss. They will move in super slow motion… away from the threat. Once clear, they turn tail and run. The “playing possum” trick works when they cannot find a way to escape a predator.
The opossums in my garden don’t eat many of the vegetables. They come looking for cat food, which happens to be inside my bedroom through a sliding door. In summers past it has been common for a couple of opossum and a skunk to come wandering into the bedroom in the middle of the night to dine. Yes, I’m that kind of crazy!
Who doesn’t love Peppy Le Pew? In my house, they are ‘fart squirrels!’ And yes, I have had to wash cats twice in the middle of the night because crap happened. OMG, the smell of burning rubber… at 3am, under your nose, in the bed.
Skunk spray contains a type of fat particle that is spread by water. A special mix of hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, and baking powder does the trick. Make sure you always have ingredients on hand if you have neighborhood skunks.
Skunks are also a sweet, calm mammal. In California we have the striped skunk. Skunks diet is predominantly insects, grubs and worms, frogs, rodents, fruit and berries, and mushrooms.
Skunks do not have opposable thumbs; they use their paws to dig into the ground in search of worms and grubs. Not so good for the lawn, but easily stomped back in. They don’t do too much damage.
One night we had a mewling mom come through the back yard with 7 itty bitty fur babies the size of a small hand. Tails in the air, pure white stripes… running this way and that. OMG it was one of the best things I have ever seen.
Skunks usually spray as a last resort. They will avoid confrontation if possible. Just back up and let them go on their way. If they do feel threatened, they will raise their tail and do a little dance with their back feet as a warning, giving you time to back up. If you get sprayed it is usually because you surprised them, or were stupid enough to ignore their warning sequence.
I have skunks come through my back yard on a regular basis. If a skunk is eating, I talk to them. Moving slowly past and sitting down, the skunks usually just keep eating. But, this is the relationship I have built with the critters in my back yard over a number of years.
Both the opossum and skunk are nocturnal by nature. Both den down in secure places in logs, under houses, wood piles, quiet corners of properties, anywhere that it is quiet and undisturbed. Both have beaten paths they follow, but they change their route and dens every few days. If you pay attention you will soon learn their patterns.
I always make sure I have water outside for the critters. In the drought here in California, they really need a reliable clean source of water. I have a big bowl and a low bowl for the smaller critters. (Like the baby opossum who visits almost every night).
SHARING A BACK YARD
I have 2 indoor/outdoor cats. The cats are nocturnal too. Everyone has learned to get along. The cats just sit and watch the critters eating. There hasn’t been any problem for a number of years. It gets pretty busy in my back yard at night.
Last year we had a bad rat problem. They were everywhere in our neighborhood. As soon as it got dark they would be on the move. I don’t like to use any poison, introducing poison into the food chain is a disaster.
Setting big old fashioned rat traps on the roof is not a good idea either. Birds can get trapped and/or injured. We ended up putting mesh in our gutters to stop entry and a few traps in our ceiling. Our next door neighbor took all the old hanging citrus off his trees. This year, the rat problem has been minimal.
We used to have a family of raccoons across the street living in a 100ft+ redwood tree. You could hear them and the squirrels running up and down the bark. At night they would alight, one by one, and go off on their adventures. Alas, the house was sold and the redwood tree felled. I have not seen a single raccoon since then.
Technically, it is a dreadful idea to leave cat food outside at night. It is an absolute no-no to specifically leave food out for the critters. I fully expect to have some of my garden munched on by critters, and I am ok with that.
I choose natural products that will not harm animals in my garden. The critters really don’t bother the plants too much. I am happy to have them, they help keep my garden pests down and are a big source of happiness for me. It is just such a joy to watch them.
I happily coexist with all things nature in my back yard. I don’t have to worry about deer, or larger game. And for that, I am thankful for now.
To read about more shenanigans in the garden go on over to find out about my dear departed heirloom tomatoes, or how to use an organic spray to prevent and treat powdery mildew.
What critters do you have in your back yard? Do you encourage them, or shoo them off? Do you have pictures to share? Comment below, or send an email.
North American Virginia Opossum: https://www.britannica.com/animal/opossum
- Single page facts: http://www.opossum.org/facts.htm
- Critter control: https://www.crittercontrol.com/services/skunks/striped-skunk
- Skunk facts: http://www.havahart.com/skunk-facts
- Snail facts: https://www.kqed.org/news/10695652/non-natives-in-california-snails-humans-and-other-species