The American Badger
December 1, 2007
Learn about the interesting habits of the American Badger from the experiences and vast knowledge of Denny L. Vasquez.
Family:Mustelidae – (weasels, martens, otters, badgers etc.)
Subfamily:Melinae – (badgers)
Genus and Species: Taxidea taxus – ranges from the southern parts of Alberta,
Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada, down through
Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois in the US.
Taxidea taxus berlandieri – this, the smaller, southern subspecies,
occurs in central southern California, Arizona,
New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri in the US, and down into much of northern and central Mexico as far as Mexico City.
Taxidea taxus jacksoni – this subspecies has a very restricted
distribution, and is found only around the western
Great Lakes, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
Taxidea taxus jeffersoni – from southern British Columbia in Canada, this
subspecies extends down through Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, and the western parts of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
One source indicates that the name “badger” is a modern derivative of the earlier French term of badgeard. It was thought that this term was a combination of the words “badge” and “ard”, which are in reference to the white marking on the animal’s head. Throughout their existence, the story of a badger’s life has been one of shifting from one hole in the ground to another. They are born and bred in a burrow, spend most of their time digging new dens and then crawling in and out of these holes in the earth’s surface. This desire to dig is so imbedded into a badger’s conscientiousness, that during the heat of a plains land summer, they may go through a den a day, not sleeping in the same place two days in a row. However, during the cooler parts of the year, they have a tendency to spend a little more time in the same den before moving on. Even then, they will not spend more then a few days in the same place before moving on to better hunting grounds.
As well as digging its own burrows, a badger will also use holes dug by other creatures. Once such dens are located, it modifies them to suit its current needs. The tunnels encountered in a badger den are elliptical in shape, will be wider than they are tall (typically 12″ wide by 8″ tall). The nightly tunnel system is usually a simple affair and will have just one entrance. But when a female prepares a breeding den, they are usually larger and more complex, with one or two entrances. The main entrance tunnel often branches and then rejoins, and leads to a single chamber containing a nest of dry grass. There may also be several side tunnels, which are used for defecation. These breeding dens may extend to a length of 4 or 5 feet and a depth of 2 feet. However, burrows can extend for as much as 10 feet long, and descend to a depth of 6 feet.
Typically, badgers dig their burrows in powdery or crumbly soils, but they have a reputation as powerful digging machines. There are documented instances of badgers digging holes into tarmac (blacktop) pavements, and even through 2-inch thick concrete!
One exception to this behavioral pattern occurs when a badger digs up an unusually big meal, such as a rabbit. When this occurs, the badger may dig its kill into a tunnel and then hole up in this make shift den for several days as it utilizes all of its hard won meal. Usually a badger will spend it’s efforts hunting on much smaller fare such as ground squirrels, mice, snakes, bees, kangaroo rats, etc. If there is a surplus of food, the badger will cache what it does not need, burying it in the ground and returning later. But regardless of which prey it is pursuing, every day is the same old story: dig, dig, and then dig some more.
Badgers prefer open plains, prairies, thinly wooded areas, temperate forest & rainforest, chaparral, desert and the farming country and are widely, but rather thinly distributed over the area west of the Mississippi. In addition to the rodents mentioned above, badgers also eat insects, roots and occasionally young birds. Even though humans who share his range and often label him as a nuisance seldom appreciate badgers. They actually render a great service to the farmer and rancher by keeping down the rodent population and thus helping to control unwanted diseases.
Badgers capture their prey by digging them out of their dens and holes and in so doing they leave larger holes, which are a menace to domesticated animals such as cattle and sheep as well a horse and rider. It is for this reason that ranchers and farmers detest them and thus, badgers are invariably shot whenever they run across him.
This stout little resident of the dry, arid grasslands and sagebrush country digs not only to eat, rest, and nest, but also to bury its feces and to take refuge from hostile farm dogs, coyotes and its other enemies.
Though similar in appearance to its northern cousin, the wolverine, the body of these little digging machines is especially suited for life underground as it is short, stout and flat. This allows them to flatten their body in order to wriggle and crawl through the maze of burrows that they are constantly digging. It has short legs, elongated feet that are more or less plantigrade (heels touch the ground), and straight, strong toes with long, (1 to 1 1/4″) strong claws, which have been especially adapted for digging. These features combined with the badger’s ability to shove loose earth out of its way with its body make it the most prodigious burrower among the carnivore species. The badger can obtain lengths of up to 28 to34 inches, which includes the tail, and can weigh from 15 to 22 pounds at maturity. At this size, the badger is the second largest member of the weasel family in North America.
The long shaggy pelage or hair of a badger is mottled-gray above and black or dark gray below. Their head is black with white stripes running from the nose, over the top of the head and down the nape of the neck. In northern populations, this stripe ends near the shoulders. In southern populations, however, it continues over the back to the rump. The lower muzzle, under jaw, and lower cheeks are white, as are the inner ears and an area just in front of each ear. The legs and feet are dark and the short bushy tail that ends in black tuft.
Their dense fur aids in shedding water and soil. They have small eyes with a transparent inner eyelid (nictitating membrane) that protects their eyes and allows them to see in loose soil. They cannot see color, but only shades of gray. A sharp sense of hearing helps locate the badger’s next meal underground. The ridges of a badger’s ears can move forward protecting their inner ears from dirt and sand. Their sense of smell is also excellent. Each of these adaptations adds to the badger’s efficient digging ability and effectiveness at catching prey. Finally, like all members of the weasel family, badgers have small perinea or musk glands located at the base of their tail. Distinctive odors are excreted from the glands for identification and territory defense.
Even though the badger’s physical characteristics can be compared to those of the wolverine, they are neither as vicious or as cunning as this denizen of the far northern snow country. Badgers lack the wolverines capacity for pure meanness and left to their own inclination, would keep busy digging out the gophers, marmots, chipmunks, deer mice, voles, young skunks, prairie dogs, rabbits and ground squirrels on which they feed. They have even been known to dig for the larvae of beetles, bees, wasps and even hornets. Other insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and caterpillars are also taken from the ground surface and from low vegetation. Other animals taken by badgers include ground-nesting birds and their eggs, snakes (including rattlers), lizards, frogs and toads. Vegetable material including cereals are also eaten.
However, don’t be misled by this calm demeanor because the badger is not lacking in courage. If brought to bay or threatened they will charge fearlessly at man or dog and then will fight savagely in order to survive. The badger’s physique has been especially equipped to enable it to put up a rigorous fight. They have a strong lower jaw, which can lock into a cavity in his cranium, thus permitting him to maintain a death grip on his opponent. When they are cornered or threatened, badgers have been known to fight fiercely in their own defense. It will back into its’ corner, growling and snarling as it turns to face its tormentors. In one recorded instance from early in this century, a badger successfully defended itself in a fight with two coyotes.
Early in the history of this continent man began trapping and baiting them for their fur and sport. Some of them thought that the spectacle of “badger baiting”, in which a badger was put in an open barrel or similar place and forced to fight against dogs, was great sport. It is from this cruel sport that our usage of the term “to badger” has come to mean “to harass and worry”. This practice was banned in the British Isles in 1850, but was documented as continuing in the backwoods regions of North America until the early part of the 20th century.
Originally, badgers roamed a range that extended from the Peace River country in Canada in the north, all the way to Mexico in the south and from Michigan and Kansas in the east to the pacific coast in the west. As civilization gradually forced its influence upon the continent they became extinct over much of this area and are greatly reduced in numbers over their remaining range. During most of the year an adult badger will normally wander through its home range alone, except at mating time. Even though they generally avoid contact with each other, badgers occupy large home ranges, which may overlap those of other badgers. However, these home ranges are not demarcated or defended as far as is known. When and if one badger meets another, they will attack each other. Badgers are normally active during the hours of darkness but may be less nocturnal in secluded areas. In the deserts however the badger is rarely active by day, and remains in its burrow to avoid overheating and losing too much water.
In the northern part of their range badgers will enter a period of semi-dormancy, where its breathing and heart rate slows down, and its body temperature drops by as much as 9 degrees Celsius. One female badger studied over a 72-day period of intensely cold weather in a northern Canadian winter was observed emerging from her burrow only once during this time. Therefore, by autumn they have stored a winter layer of fat and before the ground is frozen they will dig deep burrows in which to sleep until the spring thaw. In the more southerly regions they are usually active year around.
Mating takes place in summer and autumn, but the young are not born until the following March or April because of a process known as delayed implantation. Implantation takes place between December and February, when most of the animals are in a state of winter semi-dormancy. Following 6 weeks normal gestation, the young are then born in nursery dens, in which the mother will have made a nest of dry bedding material. Females with litters are said to change dens frequently; if the cubs are too young to follow, their mothers may carry them in their jaws.
The usual litter size is 2 or 3, although as few as 1 or as many as 5 young may be born. Newborn badgers have a covering of short, soft hair. They are blind and helpless initially, their eyes do not open until they are 4 to 6 weeks old. They are suckled for 6 to 8 weeks or longer, after which the mother will introduce them to solid food by bringing dead rodents and other small mammals to the den. The cubs are playful, and have been observed playing at den entrances. The family breaks up when the youngsters are nearly full grown and each member will go their separate way to establish their own home ranges.
A study in Idaho found that 30% of the female cubs became sexually mature and mated at the age of 4 months, the remainder became sexually mature once they were a year old. The age at which males reach maturity appears to be in dispute, with some experts stating that they can mate in their first year of life, and others saying that they breed as yearlings.
Mortality is heavy in the first two years of the badger’s life, with starvation being a major cause of death. The badger does not have many natural enemies, but humans do of course take their toll. Those badgers, which survive all of these hazards, may however live for quite a long time. The oldest wild badger on record lived to be 14, and several aged between 8 and 10 have been known, while in captivity, one badger is known to have reached 26 years of age.
Along with many other species of mammals in North America, badgers are hunted over most of their range. Some hunters take badgers by shooting. High Desert Predator Hunting, for example, arranges hunting trips in California, Arizona and Nevada, on which mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, badgers and raccoons may be shot
However, the most popular method of hunting badgers is by trapping. The North Dakota Furtakers Educational Manual gives detailed instructions on the recommended trapping methods. In brief, up to 3 spring traps (leg-hold traps), each baited with meat (tainted but not bad) or a freshly killed ground squirrel or rabbit, are set at the entrance to a badger’s den and carefully concealed. Lures – fish oil or badger gland lure – may also be used to attract the badger to the place where the traps are set. The traps have to be staked in such a way that when a badger is trapped, it cannot get into its den; if this is not done it is apparently very difficult to remove the animal from its burrow. The guidelines state that “A trapped badger is quite a fighter and the trap must be staked solidly”. The ND Furtakers’ guidance concludes by advising that shooting it in the head with a .22 is best for killing a badger in a trap
Some trappers use conibear traps for badgers rather than leg-hold traps. “Their initial appeal was that they would kill the animal before it had a chance to escape, particularly very compact powerful animals, like badger and wolverine, which were known to commonly struggle out of a trap”.
Some badgers are killed in the name of pest control, because they cause problems, such as digging holes, which are a hazard to horses and other livestock. However, most are hunted for their fur. Badger fur is said to be extremely durable, “heavy, warm, and somewhat rugged, the long silvery guard hair covers a dense under fur, which can be white or tan”. This fur is used for coats – it takes 17 badgers to make one coat – and for coat trimmings. Their pelts, hair and other parts of their bodies are also used for a variety of other purposes such as hats, shaving brushes, mounted specimens, fur rugs, badger bags, paint brushes, native Indian artifacts, fishing flies, such as the Little Brook Trout Streamer, and badger claws.
Although badgers and other mammals are trapped so that their pelts can be sold, the hunters also derive enjoyment from their activities. The North Dakota Furtakers Educational Manual has the following to say about the reasons why people trap badgers and other animals: “Many people trap for the recreational values involved and feel that trapping is one of the best of sports. Certainly most trappers gain a lot of enjoyment from trapping. They also learn a great deal about nature and the ways of animals that they could not learn from books or from most other outdoor activities. The very nature of trapping means that it is a challenge. It consists of trying to outsmart some of Mother Nature’s wild animals that are noted for and survive by their cunning”.
Badgers are hunted in almost every state in the USA and Canada. The number of badgers taken is not as high as other species, but the total is still considerable. In North Dakota for example, in the years from 1991 to 1994, 1,000 badgers were taken on average each year. This compares with 12,000 fox, 10,000 coyotes, 6,000 raccoons, 2,000 muskrats, and 1,600 beavers. Mink, skunk, jackrabbit, bobcat and weasel were also taken, but in smaller numbers. The number of badgers taken in a year is largely dependent on the prices being paid for their pelts at that time. When prices are high, the number of badgers taken is above average.
Well, hopefully this article has shed some light on an often-overlooked member of our wildlife fraternity. Until next time, keep your powder dry, the wind in your face and the sun at your back.
By Denny L. Vasquez