CAUTION: This is an update to this post added on January 11, 2017. After writing this opossum-friendly post, I have heard from several chicken keepers who have in fact had chickens killed by opossums (you can find their stories in the comments below). I was going to delete the post to keep from misleading people about the potential hazards of opossum-chicken coexistence, but decided not to because I still believe in the importance of the overall message: that opossums are not automatically an evil in the urban landscape, or even in the backyard with a chicken coop, as long as we take the usual steps to keep our chickens safe, which includes–as I mention in bold type in the post, and will again now–closing our chickens in at night to protect from all potential nocturnal predators. In some comments people have attributed actual evil intentions to opossums. “Ruthless” is one adjective used to describe them. It can be very sad and emotional to lose an animal that is part of your household, like a chicken, and I can see why having an opossum kill one of your chickens would incite anti-opossum sentiment. But as we coexist with wildlife in an increasingly complex urban landscape, it is important to remember that omnivores like opossums do not kill anything because they are “ruthless,” they do it because they are animals that eat other animals as part of their natural diet. I write extensively about the fascinating nature of opossums and their curious history in this country in my book, The Urban Bestiary. Meanwhile, here is the original post:
One night this week I was later than usual closing the chickens into their coop–they had already put themselves to bed on the little roost-branch in the corner. When I shined my flashlight in the door, I jumped–I thought I was seeing the biggest rat on earth. But I quickly recovered, and realized it was actually a small opossum, quietly eating from the chicken food dish. The chickens, Ethel, Ophelia, and Marigold, usually hate other animals visiting their coop (squirrels, or Delilah our cat), and will chase them away in a rush of flapping wings. But they blithely looked down on the opossum from their roost, like mildly disapproving aunties.
People freak out over opossums in the hen house. While opossums do occasionally eat chickens, in truth, most chickens are too big and too intimidating for most opossums. And for the most part, opossums can be more friend than foe to the urban chicken-keeper. Their favorite urban foods (besides chicken crumble) are rats, mice, and roaches.
Which is not to say that we should let them–or anything–into our coops at night. Always close in your chickens to prevent visits from animals that really will kill them (raccoons), and to discourage rats.
If you find an opossum in your coop, don’t worry. An opossum that is cornered may be frightened, and bare its teeth in attempt to look ferocious (and it will succeed–opossums have more teeth in that long snout than any other mammal, as many as a Tyrannosaurus rex). But unless they are protecting young, opossums are gentle and will not physically confront you. I just asked this opossum to leave, and he looked up at me quietly, then made his way down the chicken ladder. I closed up the chicken door as I watched him squeeze through the hogwire fence (just a 2″ x 4″ opening!), and out into the night.
Find more about opossums, and other uban-wild creatures in my book, The Urban Bestiary.