‘O’ is for ‘opossum’. That it the proper common name for the familiar North American critter who lives in or near many home gardens where fruit, vegetables or pet food are available. When a similar critter was found in Australia, it was given the same name by someone who did not spell it properly, hence ‘possum’. It is marsupial, and therefore related to many familiar Australian critters like koalas, kangaroos and the most terrifying of all, wallabies. Well, if the North American name can be applied to an Australian critter, it only makes sense that the Australian name can be applied to the North American critter. Thought technically and correctly ‘opossum’, many of us know them simply as ‘possum’, without the preceding ‘O’.
Opossums have a vast native range in North America. They can live anywhere that does not get too cold for them. They have likely always lived in the Santa Clara Valley to a limited degree. There was not much for large populations of opossums to eat just a few centuries ago.
As orchards grew and displaced native vegetation, there was more fruit that they could eat in season, but still not so much else during the rest of the year to sustain large populations of opossums. It was not easy for opossums to make homes at the modest home sites isolated by large orchards with only seasonal vegetation on the ground.
As orchards were developed into suburban neighborhoods, more habitat was created for opossums. They lived in and around homes, woodpiles, sheds, and areas landscaped with permanent vegetation. Vegetable gardens and more varieties of fruit trees in home gardens provided food throughout the year. There were citrus, avocados, guavas, persimmons and loquats, as well as ornamental berries like pyracantha and cotoneaster. Pet food and household trash were abundant. While San Jose was still a small town, it was inhabited by more opossums than could have been sustained in the entire Santa Clara Valley only a century earlier.
Those old suburban neighborhoods are now even more urban, and their landscapes are much more overgrown than they were when the homes were new. Rats, snails, slugs, grubs and large insects that live in the landscapes are fair game for opossums. Aging and deteriorating homes are easier for opossums to get access to, so finding shelter is easier than it has ever been. With more than a million people just in San Jose, there is no shortage of trash.
All through history, people have been moving in on wildlife. However, what we do not often hear about is the wildlife that moves in on humans.