Best of UNTAMED Season One: Snakes, Owls and Opossums
This week’s UNTAMED episode highlights some of the best stories of season one. We learn more about three animals that often come through the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Although they are among the most common creatures in the Commonwealth, they are also among the most misunderstood.
Throughout history, snakes have been a symbol for some very unsavory things. But the truth about snakes is much less dramatic, and there’s really no reason to panic when you spot one. They play an important role in our environment, especially in rodent control.
There are about 50 snake species in North America, and 20 of those are venomous—but not necessarily deadly. Each year in the United States, 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes, but fewer than five die (usually from a pre-exisitng heart condition or a rare allergy to the venom).
In Virginia, there are more than 30 snake species, and only three of them are venomous. The most common is the eastern rat snake (often referred to simply as the “black snake”). They are semiarboreal, meaning they spend part of their time in the trees. While it can be a startling sight to find one dangling from your maple tree, black snakes have no interest in harming you.
But they do love to eat eggs, so you might spot one around a chicken coop. And be aware that if you attract birds to your yard with feeders and baths, you may also be attracting the snakes that love to eat from their nests.
There are 19 species of these feathered predators in North America, and five of them are here in Virginia. Owls are well known for their large, round eyes, so it might surprise you to know their primary hunting sense is hearing. An owl can hear the pitter-patter of tiny mouse feet from its perch way above the forest floor, and then use its vision to spot the prey before swooping down to grab it. Those eyes are built to see well in the dark, but they aren’t very agile; they’re more of a tube than a ball, and can’t move around like ours do. So the owl moves its entire head to look around.
The owl’s sleek arrangement of feathers allows it to fly silently, so its prey is unaware that it’s coming until it’s too late. When an owl is injured, its feathers might grow back unevenly, permanently damaging its ability to fly without a sound.
Injured owls are a common issue at the Wildlife Center. They are often involved in run-ins with cars and trucks, or might become entangled in netting, such as a soccer goal or garden net. Their large eyes are vulnerable to injury, and might require drops or surgery to fix. Broken bones are also common, and might require an external cast, or surgical repair with pins and wires.
While not the most elegant or attractive beast to behold, the opossum is actually a very impressive animal. Omnivorous and extremely adaptable, it can make a comfortable home in the mountainous wilderness, the inner city or the quiet suburbs.
While there are dozens of species of opossum around the world, the Virginia opossum (sometimes referred to simply as the “possum”) is the only one in North America. And it’s the continent’s only marsupial: As soon as its offspring leave the womb, they crawl into their mother’s pouch and latch on for two months of continuous feeding.
The opossum’s long and narrow jaw is packed with 50 teeth for chewing a widely varied diet. It’s not picky at all, eating plants, bugs, eggs, small birds and just about anything else it can get its opposable thumbs on. It will also chow down on pet food and trash if it’s easily accessible—so keep it secured.
With a short life span (only two or three years), the opossum makes the most of its breeding opportunities. A single opossum can give birth twice a year, to an average litter of nine babies.
When startled or cornered, an opossum will act like a real tough guy. It might show off all of its teeth, or hiss and growl. It’s mostly for show, but it’s so convincing that they have gotten an unfair reputation for being frightening and dangerous.
To learn more about these and other animals, have a look at the Education Animals cared for by the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Each one was treated for some kind of illness or injury, but deemed non-releasable because of lingering issues that could make it unsafe in the wild. You’ll be amazed at what these creatures have survived!