Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Possums and Persimmons
Nature Bulletin No. 354-A    October 18, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

At night, on a big steamboat plowing her way along the river, the roustabouts used to lounge on the bow deck, clogging the buck and wing to banjo music or singing some of the famous Negro folk songs, one of which starts out: De raccoon up in de ' simmon tree, Dat 'possum on de groun', De 'possum say to de raccoon: "Suh! " "Please shake dem 'simmons down. .

Moonlight hunts, hound dogs, and possums grown fat on persimmons and roasted with sweet potatoes, are justly celebrated in songs and stories about country life down south. In October they sing: "It's 'possum time again! " About when we get our first hard frosts here in the Chicago region, persimmons are ripening in southern Illinois, Indiana and all of Dixieland. They change from hard green things which, if bitten, will pucker your mouth for hours, to yellow-orange with a purplish sheen, and finally to a mellow sugar-sweet reddish- orange fruit, over an inch in diameter, which may hang on the tree until midwinter. However, during the last 100 years the stupid slow- moving opossum has gradually spread northward beyond the persimmon country until he has reached the Canadian border.

The opossum is in many ways the strangest of all our native American mammals. Captain John Smith of Jamestown Colony, who gave it its name, Virginia Opossum, wrote one of the first descriptions of it in English: "An Opossum hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is the bigness of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth and sucketh her young". The name, which probably was really "possum" preceded by a grunt, is of Algonquian Indian origin and meant "white animal". It has been spelled in many ways and it is now permissible to omit the "o". In 1500, in Brazil, the explorer Pinzon who had been the captain of Columbus' ship, the Nina, caught another kind of opossum which, with her two young, he carried back to Spain and showed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. In 1679, LaSalle saw his first opossum while portaging from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee in northern Indiana.

Besides the Virginia Opossum, the only other species found in the United States is the Texas Opossum of Texas and Mexico, but many other kinds live in Central and South America. Millions of years ago these primitive pouched mammals roamed over all the continents but now the only living relatives of the American opossums are found in Australia and nearby islands -- the kangaroos, wombats, bandicoots, phalangers, the Tasmanian wolf, and others.

Our opossum has a stout round body, short legs which give it a waddling gait, a pointed snout with stiff sensitive whiskers, and a long, naked scaly tail used in climbing and for carrying nest material. It weights up to 12 or 15 pounds. The color is usually grayish with dense white underfur and black-tipped outer hairs. The feet, well adapted for climbing, have five toes all bearing strong claws except the "thumb" of the hind foot which is used and makes a print like the human hand. The jet black, beady eyes have no iris, The black ears are thin and naked. When attacked they often "play possum": utterly relaxed and apparently dead, with the tongue lolling out. The 3 to 17 young are born while mere embryos smaller than honeybees but able to crawl to the fur-lined pouch where each clings to a nipple and remains until about the size of a mouse. Then they begin to venture out and take excursions on their mother's back.

They cling to her fur -- not to her tail, as many believe.

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