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A gentler look at this predator

By Brian M. Collins
Published: April 16, 2010
Photo by © Larry Jordan, dreamstime.com

As a middle-school kid wandering around the badger mounds of southeastern Minnesota, I figured it was only a matter of time before I would stumble upon and accidentally corner a badger, an animal I had heard was a smelly, fast and furious gopher-slaying machine.  

It was many years later that I would finally see a badger, a fleeting glimpse just outside of Yellowstone National Park sometime in my mid-20s. As much as I wanted to see it, that badger would have nothing to do with me. In seconds, it was gone.   

By the time I had finally achieved a truly good look at the American badger (Taxidea taxus) near my own home, I sat dumbfounded, watching two lumbering, playful klutzes. Playing some sort of leap-frogging game of tag, the two badgers frolicked and played until they were within a few yards of me. Made a little nervous by their approach, I grinned ear to ear and felt relieved as they disappeared into the tall grasses of a roadside ditch.  

One Tough Family
Badgers are fascinating animals, members of the same family that includes weasels, ferrets, martens, otters, skunks, fishers and wolverines. The mustelid family is characterized by a long and slender build, a slinky spine, pungent musk glands, quick and darting reflexes and sharp canine teeth. Mustelids are efficient predators and valuable killers of agricultural pests. Fun to observe, they often have luxurious fur and consistently show curiosity, charisma and whimsical intelligence.  

With their compressed, wide bodies, stocky legs and completely different approaches to hunting, badgers don’t quite fit the mustelid family expectation. They possess unusually long, strong claws attached to powerful forelimbs, making them superbly athletic digging animals.  

Both endurance and power emanate from a badger. Gophers, ground squirrels, marmots, prairie dogs and other burrowing rodents are cornered, captured and eaten following a persistent, rapid explosion of subterranean roto-tilling.   

The amount of burrowing accomplished by an adult badger in a lifetime is difficult to fathom, and these grizzled, wedge-faced mammals maintain burrows for food storage, sleeping and raising young.
In winter, badgers do not truly hibernate. Much like the skunks in Aldo Leopold’s “January Thaw,” badgers also take to winter wanderings during mild days. Despite having bred in late summer, it is during this January thaw time that the female badger’s embryos implant and begin to develop in a much-delayed gestation period. After a rapid development, they are born at winter’s end and nurse into early summer. Weaning translates to a demand for grown-up food, so summer means a lot of non-stop hunting.

Photo by dreamstime.com
Unlikely Partners
Since badgers are not the best of sprinters, they rely on strategies and tactics to box in their prey. Despite this carnivore’s great persistence, many a would-be prey animal escapes to the surface. Sometimes these escapees leap right into the jaws of waiting coyotes, and conversely, coyotes often pursue their prey all the way to the burrow – pushing the rodent straight into the jaws of a badger. Whether deliberate or not, badgers are sometimes seen hunting in the company of coyotes.  

Like so many other mustelids, badgers show flexibility in their food choices, and researchers point to snakes, bird eggs and even skunks as smaller print on the menu.

Where in the World?
A large part of this predator’s waking life takes place while the rest of us sleep. With so much time spent underground and under cover of night, very little is truly known of badgers.  

Prairie dog towns and open grasslands with an abundance of ground squirrels are likely places to encounter badgers. Since badgers dig for their prey and occupy a system of burrows, even taking the burrows of other carnivores, clues as to the badger’s whereabouts abound in these types of habitat.  

Aside from wide-open plains, badgers pursue prey high up into the mountains, in fragmented, agricultural areas and areas cleared for development. Protected from hunting in much of their range, including “the Badger State” of Wisconsin, badgers appear to be expanding (or at least reclaiming) their range and are currently increasing in number.  

Seeking a view of this animal on the open pastures and prairies seems to make the best sense. However, with their membership in the weasel family, badgers tend to be fairly adept at eluding pursuers.

To date, the best observation of a badger I have made was in the middle of a 100-acre oak and sugar maple woodlot, adjacent to more classic badger prairies and a large series of wetland lakes. I was alerted by a rustling in the woods and, to my amazement, watched a hefty adult badger as it moved with grace (and a little bit of jiggling waddle) to the base of an old white oak.  Enamored by the scent of raccoon markings, it lingered for nearly 15 minutes, its nose sampling the bouquet of Eau de Raccoon, working over every molecule of pungent evidence. Finally, it continued on through the trees, beneath a lush forested canopy, on through blackberry bushes and back out into the prairie where we all believe it truly belongs.  

Perhaps, at times, the badger may be viewed as a snarling and dangerous beast. But the badger in its own world, free of intrusion and immersed in its own life, is an industrious worker, dedicated and strong, peaceful and playful. It is a serious animal with a harlequin face. An ironic racing stripe extends down along the base of its neck. To actually see the tools of its trade, those big claws, is to stare at celebrity.  

In the glimpses I have enjoyed, I have seen an animal rich in personality, resting from a life of digging, waddling off into the sunset.

Brian M. Collins lives in the Badger State and has enjoyed observing badgers at home in Wisconsin as well as in Minnesota, Wyoming & South Dakota. 
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