‘Oh’possum, a Tick Eating, Fear Fainting Marsupial

Is the ‘possum’ an opossum or just a possum?
 
Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, an animal that carries and feeds minuscule young in a pouch.

First Observations, Description & Misidentification

 
When they were first observed (and recorded), during the early 1600’s, John Smith stated that the animal “hath an head like a swine …tail like a rat … of the bigness of a cat.”  Its name was derived from an expression for “white dog/beast” in the Virginia Algonquian language.
Animal misidentification is still common today… If your “cat” has a hairless tail that it hangs from, toothy alligator-like jaws, and it hisses, it’s probably a Virginia opossum.
 

Fossil Record & Species Introduction to California 

Opossums can be traced through sixty million years of the fossil record. What makes this even more astounding is the animal’s two-year lifespan!

Evolved for tropical ecosystems, several waves of opossum were introduced to California. The first population was brought to southern California in 1890, Tennessee immigrants brought the second wave to central California in 1910 as a food source and escapees from a fur trading operation was responsible for a third wave.

 

Traits Supporting Adaptability 

Opossum tracks. Opossums have opposable thumbs on all four feet. Photo Credit: Lensim

  • “Hands” (opposable thumbs) on all four feet
  • Prehensile tail – used like a 5th limb/hand 
  • Freezes when in danger 
  • Faints – nervous shock reaction – falls over & plays dead
  • Anal gland secretions – a repulsive greenish musk-like fluid 
  • Females can have three litters/year – producing up to 20 babies each
  • Short gestation period – 11-14 days
  • Rabies resistant (probably from low body temperature)
  • Resistance to poisonous snake venom
    Predators that eat living animals often leave prey that appears (and smells) dead. the animal rolls over on its side, becomes limp, shuts its eyes, and lets its tongue hang from an open mouth. The heartbeat slows and the animal appears to be dead.

 

Diet

They’re omnivores and will eat anything.

  • Small rodents
  • Ticks – up to 5,000 in a season! (Lyme disease reduction)
  • Insects
  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Worms
  • Frogs
  • Birds
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Garbage
  • Pet Food
  • Bird Seed

Opossums are nocturnal scavengers. They’re attracted by the smell of rotting food in garbage cans and along roadways.

After 2.5 months in the marsupial pouch, babies come out and cling to their mother’s fur.

Jacks, Jills & Joeys

Adult males and females are known as Jacks and Jills. Babies are Joeys.

Pouch Checking

Habitat

An opossum’s first habitat of choice is near streams and wetlands. Since they are not prolific diggers, they’ll shelter in tree cavities, abandoned burrows of other animals, under brush piles or under manmade structures.

In urban areas, they can be found under decks, in garden sheds, attics, garages, or under steps. Nesting material appears like random debris piles rather than woven or constructed.

Opossum Pest Prevention

Because of their varied diet, adaptability, and warm winter climates, the animals have successfully integrated into urban environments. If you have opossums living near your home, below are a few actions you can take to encourage them to move.

  • clear overhanging brush away from the walls of our home and roof – at least 5 feet.
  • remove fallen fruit from under fruit trees
  • tightly stack firewood, at least 18″ off the ground
  • tight-fitting garbage can lids
  • feed pets indoors and/or move pet food inside at night
  • poultry wire protection fencing around gardens (burry down under earth at the base at least 6″)
  • keep food scraps out of compost piles
  • screen access to under house or steps

Although Opossums can carry disease, and their defense strategies are noxious and showy, they are not generally considered dangerous wild animals.

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Resources:

Bay Nature – More Opossums for the Internet

Blog Post Opossum Artist – Bonnie McKeegan

Davis Wiki – Opossums

Mental Floss – What’s the Difference Between a Possum and an Opossum?

Mother Jones – I’ve Stayed Silent Too Long: Opossums Deserve Our Love

Nevada County Wildlife Services

NPR – Declining Biodiversity Speeds Spreading of Disease

Opossum Society of the United States – General Information

Pest Management Professional – Why The Opossum Successfully Lives in the Shadows of Humans

Science Daily – Climate change, urbanization driving opossum’s northward march

The Opossum: Its Amazing Story by William & Winifred Krause {Dept. of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, School of Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri] PDF

Northern Woodlands – Live Wierd, Die Young: the Virginia Opossum

SFGate – What do Opossums Eat and Are they Dangerous?

University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources – Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program  – Opossum

Wikipedia – Virginia Opossum

Drone Filming Behind the Scenes with Titus Davis

In the fall of 2019, Titus Davis of Lodestone Drone Productions, joined me to help tell more of the Deer Creek Watershed story. With his drone and special flying license, we met at several locations to film. Titus is a longtime Nevada County resident. Taking him hiking through the Black Swan Preserve was a pleasure because he enjoyed the new scenery and was thinking about other people he could share it with.  The old Cotton Brothers bridge near Bitney Springs Road was another first.

As we went through the filming and set-up process and sorted out how to transfer data, he explained some of the intricacies of drone operation. He generously shares these below.

Drone Operation Considerations from Titus Davis:

[While filming the Cotton Brothers Bridge, the drone had a little difficulty staying on course. This was caused by…]

Ferromagnetism is a phenomenon that occurs in some metals, most notably iron, cobalt, and nickel, that over time causes the metal to become magnetic. This is a natural process that can be caused by electrolysis, which is part of the corrosion process. Ferromagnetism can also be increased by the earth’s magnetic field, vehicles passing over, vibration, etc.

Most drones used for photography have a sensitive compass to help orientate the drone, allowing it to fly in a straight line. The drone I use has two compasses to ensure it has an accurate reading on the earths magnetic field. If the iron bridge has a magnetic field that is different than the earths field, the compass will be affected. This effect can be seen when the drone has difficulty flying in a straight line near the bridge.

Another challenge to flying is the drone’s GPS system feature which helps stabilize it and hold a position in the wind. Anything that affects the GPS signals will cause the drone to drift. Flying near iron objects or under them can cause a loss of the GPS signal. This will cause the drone to drift and not accurately hold altitude.

Drone Filming Precautions

Flying under the Boulder Street Bridge.

When we met at Lefty’s Grill (on a day the restaurant was closed) to film dusk over the creek and Nevada City, Titus had already communicated with Lefty’s management asking if it was OK to film there and notified the Nevada City Police Department. (If they received calls from concerned citizens, they’d already know what was going on.)

When we were at the turtle ponds on the Black Swan Preserve, he was watching for hunting birds after explaining that birds of prey sometimes attack drones. (Drone color may affect bird attraction.)

Deer Creek Bridge Films

Click here to watch Titus’s drone footage – Deer Creek Bridges – Elevations & History.

Davis Drone Footage to Appear in Deer Creek Flyover Film

Lisa is currently producing a flyover film she plans to submit to the 2021 SYRCL Wild and Scenic Film Festival. It’s taken a year to collect the footage for the project; Davis’s drone footage will highlight key features along Deer Creek. 

Resources:

 

Titus Davis Lodestone Drone Productions lodestonedrone.com lodestonedrone@gmail.com

 

*Fortunately, we had no attack bird skirmishes, but after we were done, I had to research what a confrontation would have looked like. See the video below. 

Deer Creek Bridges – Elevations & History

From the highest elevation to lowest, here are views of bridges crossing Deer Creek along with some history.

Boulder Street Bridge, Nevada City – Elevation 2,512′ 

(Near Lefty’s Grill & the Stone House)

Pine Street Bridge, Nevada City – Elevation 2,445′

 

Tribute Trail  – Angkula Seo  Suspension Bridge – Elevation 2,400′

(built by Seattle Bridge LLC)

Tribute Trail – Chinese Tribute Bridge  – Stocking Flat (Champion Mine) – Elevation 2,247′

Bitney Springs – Cotton Brothers Bridge – Elevation 2,010′

 

“NEVADA CITY, CAL –  Cotton Bros. & Co, Oakland, CAL were awarded a contract April 14 by the county supervisors for constructing the following bridges; steel bridge over Deer Creek, $2,248.” – Engineering News and American Railway Journal, Volume 39, April 28, 1898, pg. 145

“The Cotton Brothers and Company was an important California based bridge builder of metal truss bridges in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. They built several bridges in Nevada County during the 1890’s, including the Purdon Bridge.” – Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service – Wolf Creek Bridge PDF

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Resources:

American Bridge Building Companies PDF

Bridgehunter.com – Cotton Brothers Bridges

Bear Yuba Land Trust – Deer Creek Environs Trail

Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service – Wolf Creek Bridge PDF

Installation of Chinese Tribute Bridge (Champion Mine area).

The Sierra Fund – Deer Creek Tribute Trail

South Yuba River State Park – California Bridges – Purdon Bridge

Titus Davis, Loadstone Drone

Tribute Trail Building

The Union – Through the years: Deer Creek’s many bridges

Technology Practice before the Multimedia Story Show in March

From March 4th through April 15th, the South Pine Cafe (in Grass Valley) will host a Following Deer Creek Multimedia Story Show.

What is a Multimedia Story Show?

It’s a display of traditional art pieces, and digital designs printed on clothing and housewares accompanied by QR codes linking to web pages for each subject.

When planning for a multimedia show, the producer must ensure visitors understand how to use technology to get the most out of it.

In this case, QR codes are posted along with each type of media on display. To read a QR code, a smartphone camera optically analyzes the black and white square shape, then directly links to the web page where additional information, along with curated documentaries await the curious.

A variety of phone apps will accomplish similar things, for example, QR Readers, and Bar Code Scanners both use the phone camera to analyze a QR (Quick Response) and bar codes. Because Google Lens performs those functions AND identifies plants and animals, translates foreign languages, serves up book information, and a variety of other services, it’s Lisa’s top choice for scanning apps.

By expanding capabilities of devices we already use on a daily basis (the phone camera), Google is soft teaching us to use artificial intelligence (machine learning) and augmented reality.

“It’s quite fun!” says Redfern. “It’s not always exact, but it’s close enough to be interesting.”

Practice Using New Technology Before the Show

As Lisa was testing the user instructions she plans to display at the show, several test subjects requested that she post tutorials on the blog so new users have time to practice before March 4th.

Click here to visit the YouTube How-To playlist

 

Resources:

Android Guys – Ten awesome things you can do with Google Lens

c|net – Google Lens is turning into what Google Glass never was

Google Lens

Deer Tick, a Questing Bloodsucker

Even if bloodsucking arachnids make you scratch, it’s worth spending a few minutes learning about the behaviors of this tiny creature who survives by hitching rides and drinking blood. While ticks have the potential to spread serious disease, if you know where they hang-out, how do inspections, and how to properly remove them, you can minimize the danger to yourself, your family, and your pets.

Where Ticks Hang-out

Deer ticks are found in places near potential hosts. In Nevada County, those include; deer, squirrel, mice, rabbits, birds, lizards, woodrats, bobcats, skunks, gophers, dogs, cats, humans and other animals with blood.

Blood meals are required for growth. Black-legged ticks (aka Deer Ticks) are hard-bodied and require a host to progress through each life stage. Between meals, they wait, often going into diapause, a state of suspended development.

When not connected to a host, ticks require cool moist places like;

  • leaf litter
  • overgrown shrubs
  • high grass
  • wooded areas
  • woodpiles
  • low branches
  • logs
  • bird feeders
  • moisture-retaining garden features such as mulch or stone walls

Myths

Ticks  do not;

  •  jump
  • drop from trees
  • fly 

They only crawl and climb. To move long distances, ticks must do so while attached to a host.

 

How Ticks Sense Hosts and Know When to Ready Their Grappling Hooks

  • body odor
  • vibration
  • heat
  • breath
  • moisture

questing tick larvae

Questing Behavior

Questing is when a tick prepares to latch onto a host. Like a pirate with a grappling hook, a tick perches at the end of grass blades or branches, waiting with outstretched front legs.  After hooking onto hair or clothing, the tick begins to ascend. They travel up, looking for locations with thinner skin and for places where hosts cannot reach.

Questing Black-legged (Deer) tick. Photo Credit: National Park Service

Newtown Rd. bobcat with an engorged tick. Photo Credit: Terry & Anita Hansen

 Life Span

In warm climates, a tick’s life span may only last a year. In Nevada County, where it’s cold, a tick has a three-year life span. 

Fall through Winter

Tick life starts out as an egg.

Larvae hatch with six legs. *They go into diapause, suspended development, whenever weather conditions are not ideal.

Spring

 The larva attaches to a host – usually a small animal –  for its first blood meal – which can last from days to weeks – then drops off.

Summer through Winter

After molting, a larva becomes a nymph, gains two additional legs, and overwinters in this stage.

2nd Spring

Nymphs seek out a host for a second blood meal – which can last from days to weeks – then drops off.

2nd Summer through Winter

Nymphs molt into adults and overwinter in this stage.

3rd Spring

Adults seek out a third blood meal – usually on a large animal – where they feed and mate through the summer.  Males die after mating.

3rd Fall

Females drop off the host to lay eggs on the ground. She’ll lay about twenty eggs a day and can lay over a thousand in a month-and-a-half. At this life stage, most of her body weight is comprised of the eggs. When she’s finished laying, her body collapses.

*Engorged females, ready to lay eggs will look for soil as a first choice, but if she drops off inside a house, she will seek places like hampers, bathroom rugs, or a pile of damp laundry.

 

Life stages: larvae, nymph, adult male and female.

Hardiness

Using diapause, ticks can survive long periods of drought. They can also survive underwater for two to three days and can last for two years without a blood meal.

Most Active

Adult black-legged ticks (aka Deer Ticks) are most active after the first frost in fall and again in spring.

Squirrels Carry Bacteria

In California, the Western gray squirrel is known to harbor the bacterium –Borrelia burgdorferi– that causes Lyme Disease. Ticks pick this up during their first or second blood meal.

Lizards – Western Lyme Heros

 

Western Fence Lizard with tick Photo Credit Jerry Kirkhart

While in the larva or nymph stage, ticks frequently find lizard hosts. 

Alligator lizard with ticks. Photo Credit Steve Jervetson

A protein in lizard blood kills the Lyme disease causing bacteria.

 

Lizards may be the reason Lyme Disease is not as prevalent in the western states as it is in the east.

Once a tick is finished with its lizard liquid, the bacteria won’t be transmitted to the next host.

 Predators

Ants, frogs, lizards, poultry, and opossums.

Tick Inspection & Bite Prevention

  • Wear light-colored clothes – long pants + long-sleeved shirts.
  • Apply bug spray with at least 20% Deet. (Permethrin on clothes only.)
  • Keep to the middle of the trail and try not to brush against branches or grass.
  • Frequently stop to check pant legs for ticks.
  • Check companions for ticks in places they can’t see. 
  • Also do periodic checks on animals, focusing on head, ears, and neck.
  • If possible, shower within two hours of spending time in a tick zones.

Tick Removal 

Because ticks have numbing agents in their saliva, you won’t feel it when mouthparts penetrate.

With tweezers, grab the tick close to the skin and pull straight out.

Ticks & Disease

“Ticks transmit the widest variety of pathogens of any blood-sucking arthropod, including bacteria, rickettsiae, protozoa, and viruses,” comments Larisa Vredevoe, Ph.D, Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis

**It’s important to remove ticks as soon as possible. It takes between 36 to 48 hours for a Borrelia burgdorferi carrier tick to transmit the bacteria from the gut to the salivary glands.

Interactive Lyme Disease and Tick Survey

From the data on the Interactive Lyme Disease and Tick Survey,

the majority of Lyme disease causing ticks in Nevada County come from the South Yuba River watershed.

Nevada County Cases of Lyme Disease

Between 2000 and 2016, Nevada County reported 48 cases of Lyme Disease

Nevada County, incidence per 100,000 person-years = 2.73

The highest risk counties in California are; Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino.

Seek Medical Attention

If a rash or skin irritation occurs after a tick bite, promptly seek medical attention.

Lyme Rash

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If you’re not too ‘bugged’ by this post, you might also like Fleas and Disease in the California Gold Rush 

Resources:

Bay Area Lyme Foundation – Are Deer to Blame?

California Department of Public Health – Lyme Disease

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Tick prevention, removal, symptoms, and data

Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology – Blocking pathogen transmission at the source: reservoir targeted OspA-based vaccines against Borrelia burgdorferi

John Hopkins Lyme Disease  Research Center – Preventing Lyme Disease

Lyme Disease Association – Tick Removal

Nevada County Tick ID & Testing & Q and A PDF’s

Nevada County Reports of Lyme disease by the year

New York Times – Lyme Diseases’s Worst Enemy? It Might be Foxes

SF Gate – Lizards Slow Lyme Disease in West / Ticks bite them – and leave with purified blood

San Mateo County Mosquito & Vector Control District – Lizards, Ticks and Lyme Disease

Smithsonian Magazine (VIDEO)Mother tick laying eggs

The Union (2008) Ticks that cause Lyme disease are prevalent in county

UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology – California Ticks  &  Tick Biology

University of California, Berkeley – Feeding on lizard blood strips ticks of dangerous Lyme disease bacterium

University of California San Francisco (2018) Lyme Disease is on the Rise – An Expert Explains Why

University of California San Francisco – Gene Signature Could Lead to a New Way of Diagnosing Lyme

WebMD – All about Ticks FAQ 2019

 

Saliva Studies

 
Mating & Egg Laying

University of California TV – Lyme Disease – History and Current Controversies (2013)