As I walked out the back door in the early evening a few years ago, a hissing cough drew my attention to the banksia tree by Burt’s cage. It was my old friend, the brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and she was disturbed to see me.
I looked around and to my delight further down the “sliding pole” that brings every one to the feeding tray I saw another possum. She had a new baby clinging to her back and these three are almost certainly mother and daughter – with a new granddaughter enjoying the balmy night. It’s an occasional tit-bit of apple or banana that they love; to supplement their original food of choice –oats. The oats in the bird seed mix that the pink and grey galahs refuse to eat. As do the magpies, bronze wing pigeons, ravens and almost everyone else who came to “Dewar’s Drop In Feeding Tray”
Only the possums liked the oats. And the mice, which frequented the floor of the large cage on the other side of the big banksia tree, happily eating Burt’s discards.
During the day, Burt flew freely about calling in the other pink and grey galahs, so he could eyeball them through the front of his cage or to talk with them as they sat on top of the small cage that was fitted to his roof like a penthouse.
Now, he sat tucked up in his back corner, beak under wing, warm and safe, while the possums scampered up and down the banksia and the pole that leant against it, jumping to and from the feeding platform.
I clicked my tongue at the mother, who was half way down the pole with her baby and quietly went back into the kitchen.
She sat waiting and I approached from the long way around, waving the limp over ripe banana like some prize of war, talking softly them all the time. Her baby’s eyes followed my every move as I came so very close, but mum did not move. Back at the kitchen door, I watched the three of them come down on to the food tray and considered how lucky we were to have them come to visit. They were certainly not tame and treated me with caution. I have spent more than one summer’s evening sitting on the back lawn waiting for someone who only came after I had gone inside – proven in the morning by the disappearance of the offering.
On their menu, we are but a delicacy – not the main event.
About four years before that night, a possum showed me her highway through the sky and I am sure she was the elder lady sitting at the top of the banksia, hissing at me. She had come through the treetops, loudly rustling the leaves (instead of her usual silent approach), down the banksia to the platform, just a few feet away from where I was standing, watching her.
When she was finished eating, instead of going back the way she came she showed me the greatest trust.
Down the pole she came, right on to the ground and she walked across to the base of a large red gum about six or seven feet away. Up its trunk she went, arms stretched out and claws grabbing as she shinnied her way up the tree.
She stopped several times, to make sure I was still watching her. When she got to the leafy branches at the top, she leapt across a small open space to the tree next door, and with lots of rustling and threats of falling she scrambled away into the top of the branches and out of sight. I was entranced, as well I might have been.
Because in less than five minutes time, she was back and she wandered down the banksia as if nothing had happened at all. On to the platform she went, in the usual way, but when she finished this time, she went back as all the possums usually do – up the banksia tree and into the treetops.
It was a very special moment – between my possum and me. Our possums came and went of their own choosing, for over twenty years and the marks on the red gum show they use their highway in the sky often, when they were unobserved.
A major change in their local habitat (in 2004) meant they needed more environmental support now.
The closure of the Dept of Agriculture Research Station in Stoneville (just across the road) was a major loss of habitat and bio-system that possums and other wildlife had enjoyed for decades. Acres of fruit trees offered a widely varying food source, both on the branch and on the ground. With a huge dam and regular irrigation, the whole area was a consistent source of food and shelter for many generations of possums and others – until the fruit trees were suddenly ripped from the landscape and the land subdivided for new homes. Even though five acre lots were maintained, there was an enormous loss of food sources.
One night, about the same time, I was lucky enough to find a Western ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis) in my shade house. It came to visit for three or four nights in succession – but that was the only time that I saw it. Loss of habitat probably drove it to me.
Any wholesale destruction of habitat, whether of native or introduced plants, has a devastating effect on local wildlife and needs active, planned rehabilitation programmes to compensate and sustain its displaced inhabitants.
The later loss of my large banksia near the corner of Burt’s cage, by the feeding platform, paled into insignificance, by comparison.
When we look at the “bush”, there are very few areas left, which can reasonably be described as original vegetation – unadulterated with weeds or plants grown from seeds that have blown in from somewhere else. There maybe residual plantings of ‘native’ plants that have been introduced into the landscape from other areas of Australia or wholesale clearing to create pasture.
Choosing the right kind of native plants, shrubs and trees to rehabilitate this (or any other land) which can be considered as in various stages of environmental decline is an interesting concept and raises challenging questions. Can introduced plants ever become ‘native’ by virtue of the length of time they have grown in an area? The possums would certainly have regarded the fruit trees as native, by now.
How big is a habitat area, when we consider ‘indigenous’ plants? Ten acres, a hundred, a thousand?
Should we use ‘native’ plants that we really like, that look good, smell good, flower beautifully, provide food sources and that we know to be wildlife friendly in terms of food and shelter, even though they might not naturally occur in our neighbourhood?
Are bottlebrushes and grevillea just ‘native’ or truly ‘indigenous’ where you live? Which plants are the best to create the desired outcome and whose outcome? The new owners? The possums? The community? The final size of mature plants and their longevity are also critical considerations. The Government site, Invasive Weeds is an excellent referral source, along with lots of other useful information about how and where and what to plant.
If you are in Perth, Zanthorrea Nursery in Maida Vale is an excellent starting point to getting the right plants. Talk to your local Council. Ring “The Men from the Trees.”
The possum on my pillow? If this was daytime, my beautiful Tonkinese cat, Teng Sing Tung would have been lying in front of Burt’s cage, waiting for a mouse to scuttle through the wire. Instead, he was tightly curled up, nose to tail, playing possum on my pillow while he waited for me to come to bed.
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