Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
There’s no denying it: American badgers do get nasty at times. Maybe it’s in their genes. After all, they’re closely related to skunks, ferrets, and weasels.
Badgers aren’t usually responsible for starting arguments. Should a fight break out, though, it’s a safe bet that the badger will come out on top. Therefore, should you be lucky enough to see one in the wild, enjoy it from a safe distance.
You won’t have any trouble identifying this animal. There aren’t many critters that are both flat and wide in shape, and approximately the size of a large housecat. A badger’s dense fur coat has a mixture of brown, gray, and tan hair, loosely attached to its muscular body. Many a dog, coyote, or human has grabbed the fur only to have the badger whip around and bite. Guess who wins those skirmishes?
Badger noses are long and pointed, and the ears are small and pointed, producing a triangular-shaped face. But there’s a much faster way of identifying a badger. Check out the snow-white stripe that starts at its nose and runs up and over its head.
When your imagination leads you down to the tail, you’ll see a short, yellowish puff of fur. Back in the days when badgers were captured for their fur, bushy badger tails brought a good price for use as men’s shaving brushes.
Below the badger body you’ll see short legs and big feet. The front feet are equipped with inch-long, down-curved claws that are strong enough to tear flesh and excavate soil. The claws on the back feet are shorter than and not nearly as sharp as the ones in front. They do, however, play a large role in fighting, digging holes, and grabbing prey.
Badgers have plantigrade hind feet, meaning that they walk flat-footed instead of on their toes like many other mammals. They certainly have their own way of walking “” exhibiting a clumsy, waddling gait. If you see one of these creatures walking, you won’t confuse it for a ferret or fox. Take a good look at it, though; being nocturnal, badgers rarely move around in broad daylight.
Before the arrival of badger hunters, these animals were widely dispersed throughout the Midwest, as well as in parts of the West. If you live in Wisconsin, you probably know plenty of badgers “” serious University of Wisconsin Badger sports fans. You also know that the badger is the official Wisconsin state animal. Farther north, parts of British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan are good badger diggings.
These mammals require large, open areas with deep, soft soil. They’re happiest and hardiest living on the plains and prairies, in farmland, and along the edges of woods. Badgers are solitary critters that roam widely through their ranges.
Badgers mainly rely on digging for their dinner. According to one source, they are the fastest-digging animals in the world. They are good at sniffing out underground rodents and excavating the dirt before the creatures can escape. They have to work fast to capture and eat their prey, which can be gophers, ground squirrels, rats, or mice. These carnivores aren’t choosy about their diet, as long as it’s reasonably fresh.
Local badger populations rise and fall with the density of rodents. But that doesn’t mean they won’t dine on other critters. A rabbit or two is fine if the opportunity arises; or, possibly, a bird or snake. When prey animals get really scarce, desperate badgers eat fruit, nuts, and grass; insects and worms; and even carrion (if it isn’t too ripe).
Badgers don’t catch everything they go after. If that were true, a coyote wouldn’t bother to stand at the entrance of a hole where it hears a badger working. The coyote isn’t interested in fighting with the badger, but it certainly wouldn’t mind grabbing the mouse that flees from the sounds of a badger digging.
Despite their solitary nature, badgers manage to make time to mingle with the opposite sex. They breed just once a year, in mid- to late summer. Once they’re finished mating, the males and females go their separate ways. That leaves the female to birth and raise one to five kits on her own.
The female is technically “pregnant” for seven months, but gestation takes only six weeks. Due to delayed implantation, the youngsters won’t be born until early to mid-spring. By the time they are 6 months old, they are ready for life on their own.
Dens and burrows play an important role in badger life. Some burrows are as deep as 12 feet and may extend 50 feet in length. Each animal excavates several dens, sleeping in whichever is nearest after a night of hunting. The females also need a separate burrow to use as a birthing place and nursery for their young.
Whatever their use, badger dens have a single entrance with a big pile of dirt next to the opening. When a badger is threatened, it enters its burrow, whips around, and bares its teeth. If that doesn’t convince the predator to retreat, the badger gets noisy. It hisses and growls, and if that doesn’t do the job, the badger will start squealing and squalling. Another defense mechanism at a badger’s disposal is the ability to release an unpleasant musk that will drive all but the most desperate predators away. Once you smell that odor, you will never forget it. Remember, skunks and badgers are relatives.
To be sure that the little drama convinces the predator to reverse its direction, the cautious badger may then plug up the burrow’s entrance using the pile of dirt it cautiously saved for just such a use. After all, it can always dig a little deeper in this burrow, or wait and make a new one.