Friday, August 07, 2009

A Bump in the Night

After living in Brooklyn for four years I'm used to hearing the city sounds at night, like traffic, people talking, and dishes clattering. What I'm not used to hearing is rustling in the trees and bushes at 4 am, so when I heard just that in the garden next to our new apartment's bedroom, I got nervous. I thought my reaction was perfectly normal considering that there could be some sort of intruder mere feet away from us--in the middle of the night, no less--but when I heard branches break and crunching sounds, I realized that what I was hearing was an animal. My anxiety melted into curiosity.

I came up with the two most probable options: raccoon or opossum. A look outside didn't do much good, since it was 4 am and dark out, and even though I was squinting, my eyesight just isn't that good without my glasses. Then I tried to narrow down my choice based on what I knew about the animals. They're well adapted to human environments. They eat...and here's where I faltered. Even though I'm an environmental journalist, I really don't know much about the habits of these wild animals. How embarrassing.

My search for information led me to John Harder, a biologist at Ohio State University who did a study on opossums in New York. He told me that "raccoons and opossums are sort of common.
If you have one you probably have the other."

So what could he tell me about an opossum's diet, then? They're generalists that eat everything from earthworms to dog food. "They love dog food--of any kind," he said. People mistake them for rats because of their pointed noses, but they actually eat them. The most interesting thing about the Virginia opossums, the species most likely to live around here, Harden said, is that they're actually marsupials, more closely related to kangaroos and koalas than rodents. They climb trees and the young ones even hang from their tails, he said. And yes, they allegedly play dead, putting themselves into a coma. That's not a behavior often seen by humans, though. They're not very impressed by us, apparently.

Raccoons also eat almost anything. In addition to garbage, they eat plants, animals, eggs, and insects. They've been haunting yards in my neighborhood for years, Anne Won, told me. As the director of landscape management at Prospect Park, one of the larger parks in New York located a few blocks from my place, she's heard of them prowling the grounds.

Having them, as well as opossums, is "just natural in any city park, just like in backyards," she said. "They’re going to be opportunistic. It’s a good habitat for them." So is our garden, so if I can play a small part supporting the local wildlife, I'm happy to do so. Now I just have to find that flashlight...