On his way to the next learning session Peter Rabbit passed a certain tree in the Green Forest when a familiar voice hailed him.
“Good Morning Peter Rabbit,” said the voice. “What’s your hurry?” Peter stopped abruptly and looked up in that tree. There, peering down at him from a hole high up in the trunk, was a sharp, whitish-gray face, with a pair of twinkling black eyes.
“Hello Billy the Opossum,” Peter called out. “How are you and Mrs. Opossum this fine day?”
“Poorly, Peter as we haven’t had breakfast yet,” replied Billy with a grin.
A sudden thought popped into Peter’s head. “Billy,” shouted Peter excitedly, “are you a Carnivora?”
Billy the Opossum poked his head a little farther out and put his hand behind his ear as if he were a little hard of hearing. “What’s that Peter Rabbit? Am I a what?” he asked.
“Are you a Carnivora?” repeated Peter.
Peter wasn’t listening for the answer. The fact is, Peter had started lipperty-lipperty-lip for the next learning session, without even saying good-by. He arrived quite out of breath. “I know!” he panted. “I know!”
“What do you know?” asked Mother Nature.
“I know the answer to the question you asked yesterday. I know who it is that eats flesh, yet doesn’t belong to the order of flesh eaters. It’s Billy the Opossum!” cried Peter.
“Right you are,” replied Mother Nature. “However did you find it out?”
“I didn’t exactly find it out; I guessed it,” replied Peter. “On my way here I saw Billy the Opossum, and it popped into my head right away that he was one we haven’t heard about, and must be the one. However, if he eats flesh, I don’t see why he isn’t a member of the order of flesh eaters.”
“It is because he belongs to a group which has something which makes them entirely different from all other animals, and for this reason they have been given an order of their own,” explained Mother Nature. “They belong to the order of Marsupials, which means pouched animals. It is because the mothers have big pockets in which they carry their babies. Mrs. Opossum has just such a pocket.”
“Of course,” exclaimed Peter. “I’ve seen those babies poking their heads out of that pocket.”
“The Opossums are the only Marsupials in this country,” continued Mother Nature. “Now have I made it quite clear why, although they eat flesh, Billy and Mrs. Opossum are not members of the same big order as Buster Bear and the other flesh eaters?”
Everybody nodded. Just then Chatterer the Red Squirrel shouted, “Here comes Billy, and Mrs. Opossum and all the little Opossums.”
Sure enough, down the Lone Little Path came the Opossum family, and a funny looking sight they were. Billy was whitish-gray, his face whiter than the rest of him. He looked as if he had just gotten out of bed and forgotten to brush his hair; it pointed every which way. His legs were dark, his feet black and his toes white. His ears were without any hair at all, and were black for the lower half, the rest being white. He had a long whitish tail without any hair on it. Altogether, with his sharp face and naked tail, he looked a great deal as though he might be a giant Rat.
Mrs. Opossum was even more funny-looking as she seemed to have heads and tails all over her. You see, she had brought along her family, and Mrs. Opossum is one of those who believes in large families. There were twelve youngsters, and they were exactly like their parents, only small. They were clinging all over Mrs. Opossum. Some were on her back, some were clinging to her sides, and a couple were in the big pocket, where they had spent their babyhood.
“We thought we’d join you and see what’s going on today,” explained Billy with a grin.
“I’m glad you did,” replied Mother Nature. “You see, the rest of your friends here are a little curious about the Opossum family.”
Meanwhile Mrs. Opossum was climbing a tree, and when she had reached a comfortable notch the little Opossums left her and began to play about in the tree. It was then that it appeared what handy things those naked little tails were. When the little Possums crawled out where the branches were small, they simply wrapped their tails around the twigs to keep from falling.
“My!” exclaimed Peter. “Those certainly are handy tails.”
“Handiest tails ever,” declared Billy the Opossum smiling proudly at his family.
“Would you like to climb a tree, Billy, and show your friends here how you manage to get the eggs from a nest that you cannot reach by crawling along the branch on which it is placed,” said Mother Nature.
Billy nodded and good-naturedly started up a tree. He crept out on a branch that overhung another branch way out where the branch was small. Then he wrapped the end of his tail around the branch and swung himself off, keeping hold of the branch only with his tail and one hind foot. Then, stretching down full length, he could just reach the branch below him. “You see,” he explained, “if there was a nest on this branch down here, I could get those eggs without any trouble. I wish there was a nest. Just speaking of eggs makes my mouth water.” Again Billy pulled himself back to the other branch.
“What else do you eat?” asked Mother Nature.
“Anything,” replied Billy the Opossum. “I’m not very particular–insects, roots, Frogs, Toads, small Snakes, Lizards, berries, fruits, nuts, young Rats and Mice, corn, any old meat that has been left lying around. I could find a meal most any time most anywhere.”
“Do you always have as big a family as you have here today?” asked Peter Rabbit.
“Not always,” replied Billy. “Although sometimes Mrs. Opossum has to tote around a still bigger family. We usually have two or three big families a year.”
“Where is your home?” asked Johnny Chuck.
“I know,” said Peter Rabbit. “It’s up in a big hollow tree.”
Billy looked down at Peter and said, “remember it isn’t necessary to tell everyone where that hollow tree is now Peter.”
“Are Possums found anywhere except around here?” inquired Happy Jack.
“Yes, indeed,” replied Mother Nature. “They are found all down through the Sunny South, and in the warmer parts of the Mid-West. Billy the Opossum and his relatives are not fond of cold weather. They prefer to be where they can be reasonably warm all the year round.”
“Billy learned a long time ago that he can’t run as fast as some others, so he has learned to depend on his wits in time of danger. What do you think he does?”
“I know,” cried Peter; “I saw him do it once. Farmer Brown’s boy surprised Billy, and Billy just fell right over dead.”
“Pooh! Now that’s a story, Peter Rabbit. How could Billy the Opossum have fallen over dead and be alive up in that tree this very minute?” cried Happy Jack.
“I didn’t mean he was really dead just that he looked as if he were dead,” explained Peter. “And he did, too. He was the deadest looking thing I ever saw. I thought he was dead myself. I was watching from a bramble tangle where I was hiding, and I certainly thought the life had been scared right out of Billy. I guess Farmer Brown’s boy thought so too. He picked Billy up by the tail, and looked him all over, and said, ‘You poor little thing. I didn’t mean to hurt you.’ Billy didn’t so much as wink an eye. Farmer Brown’s boy went off up the path carrying Billy the Opossum by the tail. By and by he laid Billy down on an old stump while he went to look at a nest of Clever the Crow. When he came back Billy wasn’t there. I never did see Billy hurry as he did the minute Farmer Brown’s boy’s back was turned. He came to life as suddenly as he had dropped dead.”
“Very good, Peter,” said Mother Nature. “Pretending to be dead in order to remain alive is the cleverest thing Billy does.”
“Now, how about we focus on Lightfoot the Deer for our next lesson?”
“Splendid,” cried everyone at once and prepared to start for their homes.
- What is the difference between an Opossum like Billy and a Possum? Have you heard folks talk about one or the other where you live? Time to get curious and investigate! Check out this LINK to the Mass Audubon Society page to discover more!
- Have you ever hung upside down from “your tail”(using your legs bent at the knees) from a tree branch or on a bar at the playground? What does the world look like from that view? Would you want to hang like that often? Would you wish for a marsupial tail?
- Where do many marsupials live? Do they look like Billy the Opossum? What do they have in common? What are their differences?