Trichosurus vulpecular & Pseudocheirus peregrinus
I had to go out a few nights ago, and when I came home on the bus it was late, well after dark. It was cold, too, and I was tired and hungry so I just kept my head down and I didn’t have any thoughts other than getting home, getting inside and making myself some dinner, so I didn’t notice anything in particular between the bus-stop and my front door.
In terms of wildlife, it’s surprising how much there is to notice in a big city. For instance Melbourne, where I live, is full of falcons: just a few weeks ago I saw a Little Falcon, also known as an Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis), perched on the TV antenna on top of a pub a block from my house. I see at least half a dozen Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) a year, just by looking up in the sky.
Birds are easy to notice, though. For the most part they’re not particularly subtle: they don’t need to be, not when they can just take to the air to escape danger; furthermore, the vast majority of them are active during the day, which is convenient for us humans. In Australia, though, mammals are much harder to spot.
It’s always disconcerting for me to go overseas and see mammals being active in broad daylight. Until relatively recently I’d just accepted that mammals were nocturnal. Seeing European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in England happily chewing on grass by the side of the road on a sunny summer afternoon in 2003 jolted me into thinking that perhaps the nocturnal nature of Australian mammals – including Australia’s abundant population of introduced rabbits – was an aberration, rather than the norm.
Growing up in Australia can be like that. Our wildlife is unusual, but although much of it is endangered enough of it is sufficiently abundant to make it familiar, and so we take it for granted. Most of our mammals are marsupials, for instance; our swans are Black Swans (Cygnus atratus); we’re the only continent on earth in which the dominant snake group is the venomous snakes (Elapidae). Yet anyone who’s gone out in the bush in Australia has seen a snake; anyone who’s gone near any body of water has seen a Black Swan; and anyone who’s walked home from a bus stop at night has seen a marsupial.
The reason for that last point being that one of the most common mammals in Australia is the Common Brushtail Possum. Sure, it’s only active at night, but it’s also adapted without any apparent difficulty to city life and it’s not exactly shy, though if it’s on the ground when it sees you it’ll usually run up the nearest tree. Only to a safe distance, though: once it’s out of reach of whatever’s startled it it’ll be at leisure again. When I lived in Canberra I used to watch the Brushtails that lived in the roof of my parents’ house sit in the fork of an ash tree behind the back fence and stare down at the family dog, which would go mad with excitement trying to reach them. The possums, only about the size of a domestic cat (Felis catus), were barely a metre out of her reach but they knew they were safe. When they got bored they turned tail and sauntered up the tree, off to find something to eat.
Australians have a complicated relationship with Brushtail Possums. On the one hand, we’re fond enough of them to have bestowed upon them a typically Australian nickname – “Brushies” – but on the other hand, we go to great lengths to keep our plants and gardens safe from them. Councils put metal bands around trees in parks to discourage possums from trying to climb them. Suburban gardeners net their fruit trees and bemoan the damage a single possum can do in a night as it climbs down from above to graze on any bud and young leaf and ripe or unripe fruit it finds in its way. Yet the very abundance of possums marks them out in such stark contrast to the horrendous history of extinction that has been the greater fate of Australian wildlife generally in the two hundred years since European settlement that it’s hard not to be a little proud of them. Crucially, they’re not too abundant: just by virtue of their being nocturnal seeing a possum is uncommon enough to ensure that when you do happen to spy one shimmying across the powerlines outside your house, or rustling in a street tree, or galloping across a park late at night, it’s an event.
The Common Ringtail Possum isn’t seen quite so often as the Brushtail. It’s noticeably smaller than its relative, and shyer with that: more likely to run away if it sees you, less likely to stop and stare (though it has great eyes for staring: two bulbous orbs, their pupils invariably a pin-prick even in the middle of the night). But exactly how shy is it? I’ve heard reports of Ringtails being tempted inside people’s houses by the offer of fruit; I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a Brushtail doing the same thing.
Perhaps, though, that’s due to opportunity rather than inclination. As a species we humans are very heavily biased towards anything cute, and Ringtails are just cuter than Brushtails. They’re smaller, for one thing, and that always helps; they’re a nicer colour too, usually an attractive russet-red by contrast with the grizzled grey that’s far and away the most common colour for Brushtails. Finally, there’s the tail that gives the Ringtails their name: a long, slender thing which is truly prehensile, able to grasp a branch and strong enough to hold a Ringtail Possum suspended upside-down. The fact that Ringtails are at least as much of a threat to urban gardens as Brushtails is neither here nor there: they’re prettier animals, so we cut them some slack.
Ringtails have one other supremely endearing quality not shared by Brushtails, though it’s one which I suspect most people don’t know about: they build nests. While Brushtails are content to live in any tree hollow or tree hollow analogue (including roofspaces) they can find, Ringtails sleep in a domed nest which they make themselves out of sticks and place in the branches of a tree. You’d think that these structures, called dreys, would be fairly obvious – and yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. But then, I guess the Ringtail Possum wouldn’t be an Australian mammal if it wasn’t good at hiding.
Mind you, I haven’t had many chances to look for dreys. The distribution of Ringtails is strictly coastal, and Canberra, where I grew up, is well inland. In Canberra there are Brushtails, so while I’ve been seeing Brushtails all my life it’s only since moving to Melbourne seven years ago that I’ve had a chance to regularly see Ringtail Possums. For that reason if no other, seeing a Ringtail still excites me. I like seeing Brushtails, too, but I’m a lot more blasé about them.
That’s usually how it is, though, isn’t it? When you get down to it there’s really nothing that makes a Ringtail Possum any more compelling a creature than a Brushtail. I’d imagine that somebody who, somehow, had only ever seen Ringtails would find Brushtails much more exciting, and they’d find reasons to explain that to themselves that are as convincing to them as my reasons are to me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that familiarity breeds contempt – but I think it certainly breeds a level of indifference, which is disheartening enough in its own right. If we sat down to think for even just a few moments about any of the extraordinary things that we barely give a second glance to every day I’m not sure any of us could find it in us to be bored, or dispirited, or unenthused ever again. The fact that each possum emerging from its hiding place to explore the trees in my neighbourhood every night is an entire, functioning, self-contained and in some way unique biological system is nothing short of breathtaking. The question of whether it’s a Brushtail or a Ringtail, whether I’ve seen its like hundreds of times before or only a few dozen, shouldn’t really enter into it. Yet it does.
Just last night, a Friday night, I went out again. I’m not very good at staying out, though: I get tired early by city standards and I can’t stand being in drunken crowds because I don’t drink much myself; and besides, I had to get up early this morning so I didn’t want to be too late to bed. As I was approaching my house I caught out of the corner of my eye a shape at the top of an electricity pole that didn’t seem quite right. I looked closer and realised that it was a face: a pointed nose and two large ears silhouetted against the illuminated night sky of the city. As it turned to continue on its way along the powerline I got a better look at the animal. It was a Brushtail – and I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a Ringtail.
Brushtail Possum image by Marilyn Chalkley / Ringtail Possum image sourced from http://www.knox.vic.gov.au/