Brushtail Possums are commonly seen in urban areas and heard scampering over the roof at night. They live along the east coast of Australia, in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Canberra, Tasmania, the south-east corner of South Australia, in central Australia including southern Northern Territory and along the south west coast of Western Australia.
Brushtails vary in colour throughout their range, from a copper colour in northern Queensland to a grey or even blackish colouration in the southern states.
Brushtails get their name from their dark, thick, bushy tail. They have pointed ears like a cat and are about the size of a big cat.
Brushtails eat leaves, flowers, fruits and occasionally meat and small invertebrates.
A Brushtail Possum is highly territorial and can be noisy when defending its home territory. Male possums have a territory of about 2.8 hectares when living in close proximity with people, and females need about 1.9 hectares.
Brushtail Possums mainly breed in autumn, or spring but can breed at any month if there is enough food. They usually have one baby which lives in its mother's pouch for 4-5 months, and disperses from its mother's home range at 6 to 18 months old.
Ringtail Possums are less common than Brushtails and a bit smaller in size. They live along the east coast of Australia in Queensland, New South Wales, Canberra, most of Victoria, Tasmania and the south-west of Western Australia.
The Ringtail has smaller ears than the Brushtail. It is usually grey-brown in colour with red flanks, white underparts and white spots behind its ears.
Ringtail Possums get their name from their long, tapering tail. The last third of their tail is white. It is prehensile, meaning it can grip like another hand. This possum can grip branches with its tail and even carry nesting material with it.
Ringtails eat mostly leaves, including Eucalyptus leaves, and some flowers. They will sometimes develop a taste for flowers in your garden!
Unlike the Brushtail, in the south of Australia the Ringtail Possum builds a nest out of sticks, grass and back called a drey. Dreys are usually 2 to 4 metres off the ground, up in trees. In north, Ringtails sleep in tree hollows and rarely build dreys.
Ringtails are sociable and can have overlapping home territories with other Ringtail Possums. They are not as noisy as Brushtail Possums, though they sometimes makes soft, high-pitched twittering calls.
Ringtail Possums breed from April to November. Two possum bubs usually stay in their mum's pouch until they're four months old, after which they ride around on mum's back for about 11 months.
Risks to possums
Brushtail and Ringtail Possums are at risk from cats, dogs, foxes, traffic, and also electrocution from powerlines, cables and transformers. Possums are also at risk from the removal of habitat due to human development.
Why the roof?
Possums are tree dwelling animals that are active at night. During the day they sleep in tree hollows or in the case of Ringtails in southern Australia, dreys up to 4 metres in a tree.
It takes anywhere from one hundred years or more for tree hollows to form in Eucalypt trees. As land has been cleared for dwellings, development and farming, the number of available hollows has sharply declined. Once tree hollows are gone, they cannot be naturally replaced for a long time until new hollows develop in other or newer trees.
Due to the lack of adequate tree hollows, possums move into our rooves through holes and establish homes for themselves inside where it is safe and dark.
Can possums be relocated?
Possums are highly territorial creatures. If a possum is caught and released into a new area, it is likely that possums will already be living there and will injure or kill the new possum. It may also be likely that there won't be enough food or shelter for the introduced possum in the new area. Possums do not often survive relocation.
Due to these factors, it is illegal to catch and release possums into areas more than 50 m away from where they were caught in New South Wales, and more than 25 m away from where they were caught in Queensland.
If a possum is caught in your roof, typical practice is to release it on your property at dusk.
Depending on the policy in your state, it may be possible to have the possum relocated to another area, but this is only ever done as a last resort. A permit is usually required to trap and/or relocate a possum.
What can you do to get the possums out of the roof?
If a possum has taken up residence in your roof, there are some simple, humane things you can do to encourage them outdoors.
If you can get into the roof, you can put this nest box inside the roof and perhaps even place a bit of fruit in it. Leave it in the roof for a few days for the possum to investigate and start putting its scent on.
Return to the roof a few days later, when the possum has gone out to feed - around 10 pm is usually a good time - and remove the nest box. Place it around 4 m up in a nearby tree. Put some fruit near it to attract the possum.
While the possum is out of your roof, block up the entry holes that it was using to get in. Block up all the holes you can find. If you're not sure whether a possum could use a hole to get in, stuff it with crumpled newspaper and check it over the next few nights. If the possum has pushed all the paper aside to get in, you'll know you need to block up this hole as well.
If there are holes in your roof, other creatures such as microbats, birds, and other animals may also investigate it. Make completely sure nothing is inside your roof before blocking up any holes.
If you can't get into your roof, put the nest box securely up in a nearby tree, around 4 m off the ground. Put some fruit near it. When you are sure the possum (or possums) are out of the roof, block up the entry holes. The possum/s should find the nest box and establish themselves there.
If you need some help encouraging the possum to live outside of your roof, please contact one or a few of the following:
- your state's environment department;
- your council;
- a wildlife carer or animal rescue group; or
- a possum catcher.
One of the above will be able to advise you or put you in touch with people to help you remove the possum.
As well as putting in and maintaining plants in your garden that possums love to eat and shelter in, you can put up a nest box. This will be a good place for your possum to nest in.
Your local Mens Shed group, or staff from a local hardware store, may also be able to construct a nest box for you or provide you with some help or advice.
Living happily with possums
Possums are a wonderful part of the urban environment, and they make our suburbs more interesting. They are a treat to watch at night or at dusk as they scamper along tree branches, fences, and shed or house rooves.
Find out what possums in your area like to eat. Go to Flora for Fauna and click 'Create your garden now'. Then select your state and then region, and when it asks whether you want to attract specific animals or use specific plants, click animals. Select 'Mammals' and 'Ringtail Posumm' and it will let you know the best plants that you can put in the garden to provide a tasty meal for these gorgeous creatures!
In Sydney for example, Ringtail Possums love Spotted Gums, Heath Banksias, Flinders Range Wattle and Silky Tea-trees. Plant these in your garden and you'll be doing a world of good for local possums.
Possums are usually quite shy and quiet around humans, but they can be quite vocal amongst themselves.
If you ever have any leftover or overripe fruit, possums will eat it if left outdoors. Avoid feeding bread as Brushtail Possums can develop a condition called 'Lumpy Jaw', which can be fatal.
Don't feed possums regularly as they can become dependent upon humans. Take any pet food indoors at night so possums don't eat it.
Keep your cats and dogs inside, especially at night when possums are active and looking for food.
Let old growth and big trees stay in your backyard and local area as they provide invaluable homes for native animals like possums, birds, bats and gliders. Rethink removing any trees with hollows as these can take over one hundred years to develop, and many native species need them for nesting and resting.
If you want to discourage possums from running over your roof at night, trim branches that overhang the roof - don't let branches come within 1.5 m of the gutter.