The Badger

(Taxidea taxus)

by Jay Sharp

The Badger

The Badger

The American badger – a superbly designed, heavy-bodied mammalian excavator – belongs to the Mustelidae family, which also includes weasels, ferrets, skunks, wolverines and various other species. In North America, a badger may belong to any one of four subspecies, which are classified on the basis of the size of the skull and the color and patterning of the fur.

Badger Characteristics

Authority David J. Schmidly describes the badger as a "rather large, robust, short-legged 'weasel'; body broad and squat; tail short, thick and bushy, usually shorter than the outstretched hind legs..." When active, said another authority, Karen McClymonds, the animal is typically "waddling about and occasionally moving at a clumsy trot..." Moving on its short stocky legs, it almost seems to hug the earth.

  • Size and Weight: Typically, the badger's head and rather flat wide body measure roughly 1 1/2 to 2 feet in length, with the tail adding another 4 to 6 inches. The animal may weigh from 8 to 25 pounds. The male is perhaps 15 to 20 percent larger than the female. The northernmost subspecies is larger than the other three subspecies.

  • Characteristic Features: Thick and shaggy coat, especially along the sides and across the back; triangular-shaped head with powerful jaws and relatively small ears; distinctively patterned face, characteristically marked with a longitudinal white stripe that extends from its upturned nose over its head and down to its shoulders and, in the southernmost species, clear down the back to the rump; brindle-patterned body, with a predominantly grayish to yellowish color across the back and a yellowish white color across the belly.

  • Legs: "…short and stout, black colored and well suited for digging," says authority Donald Streubel, "The foreclaws are long [as much as two inches] and curved and its hind claws are shovel-like."

  • Senses: Keen vision, acute hearing and sensitive smell.

  • Scent Gland: Like its taxonomic relative, the skunk, the badger has a scent gland that it uses to produce a strong, musky odor when it is threatened or excited. The odor may put off would-be predators.

Distribution, Habitat and Diet

The American badger ranges across the western two thirds of the United States, the southern third of Canada's western provinces, and northern mountain ranges in Mexico. The Taxidea taxus taxus subspecies lives in the Midwest prairielands; the T. t. jacksoni subspecies, in the western Great Lakes region; the T. t. jeffersonii subspecies, in southern British Columbia, the northwestern United States and coastal California; the T. t. berlandieri subspecies, in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Unlike many other species, the badger has expanded its overall range during the 20th century.

The T. t. taxus ranks as the largest of the four subspecies, and the T. t. berlandieri, as the smallest. The T. t. jacksoni and the T. t. jeffersonii subspecies populations have become threatened in their Canadian ranges, primarily because of habitat fragmentation and destruction.

The badger, a carnivore, makes its home in open grasslands, pastures and fields, from sea level to alpine meadows, where it can find a wide choice of prey: small rodents, reptiles, birds, insects and even scorpions. It especially favors the small rodents – for instance, ground squirrels, rats, mice, gophers and prairie dogs – which it usually captures by digging into the animals' burrows.

I am reminded of a time, about 65 to 70 years ago now, that my mother, my father, my aunt, her first daughter (just a baby at the time), and I were driving down a dirt road in the southeast corner of the Texas Panhandle.  A young badger crossed the road. 

My aunt, who loved animals of all descriptions, insisted that my father stop the car so she could catch the young animal and make it a pet.  She promptly dumped out my cousin's diapers from a flimsy suitcase, chased down the badger, closed it in that suitcase, and got back in the car. 

My father, a bit uneasy, headed on down the road as all hell broke loose.  That was one unhappy badger.  It was all my aunt could do, keeping her feet on the suitcase, to keep the badger from escaping.  After a couple of miles, with the suitcase now in tatters, my father stopped, and somehow, my aunt managed to get the youngster (the badger, not my cousin) safely out of the car and set it on its way.  No one said anything for a while, but my aunt chose her pets more carefully after that. 

-Jay Sharp

Behavior and Life Cycle

Within its habitat, the male badger often stakes out a territory of a square mile or more; the female, somewhat less. The male badger's territory may overlap that of several females. It does not appear to mount especially aggressive defenses of its territory.

The badger, following a solitary lifestyle, ranges and hunts primarily at night. If it has no family, it may dig itself a new den, each with one entrance, virtually every day during the summer, when it is most active, said McClymonds. It digs fewer dens in the fall as days begin to cool and its activity level declines. It may dig only a single den for most of the winter when temperatures become chilly to frigid, and its activity level falls to minimal. Although the badger does not hibernate, it may remain in its winter den for days or weeks without emerging. Fastidious, the animal, like a house cat, buries its droppings, and it often grooms itself.

In hunting, it capitalizes on its excellent ability as a digger, invading burrows to reach prey. In an extraordinary example of "mutualism," or cooperation between different species, the badger may team up (wittingly or unwittingly) with a coyote in pursuit of prey. As the badger digs into a burrow, it may chase out prey, which may dash right into the jaws of a waiting coyote. Conversely, if the coyote gives chase, it may drive the prey back into the burrow, right into the jaws of the waiting badger. If the badger kills more than it can eat, it will cache the surplus, burying it in the ground.

Defending itself from predators such as eagles, bobcats or cougars, the badger – shielded by its thick fur, loose hide and powerful neck muscles – snarls, growls, squeals and hisses. It exudes its foul-smelling musk odor. If actually attacked, it bites and claws ferociously. Given the opportunity, it may quickly dig a burrow, issuing a spray of dirt into the face of its adversary, then turn in the entrance with teeth bared and claws showing. The badger faces few attacks.

The male reaches sexual maturity within one to two years, and the female, within six months to a year. The badger mates in the late summer or early fall, although embryonic implantation into the female's uterine wall is arrested for several months, until winter. The female will deliver a litter of one to five about six weeks after actual gestation begins, or in the early spring.

Bearing total responsibility for rearing the young, the female prepares an elaborate burrow for her family. She may, in fact, dig 10 feet below the surface and excavate 30 or more feet of passageways. She fashions a grass-lined chamber for her offspring, which are born blind and helpless, bearing only a thin coat of fur and weighing only a few ounces. She nurses the youngsters for two or three months. She introduces them to solid food a few weeks before she weans them. She continues to feed them solid food for the next two or three months. Meanwhile, she induces them to begin exploring the outside world when they are four to six weeks old, soon after they open their eyes. Her brood will disperse at five or six months of age. The badger may live for as long as 14 years in the wild, and for as long as 25 years in captivity.

The Badger's Perils

The badger suffers more at the hands of man than any other predator. In some areas within its broad range, its numbers have fallen because of hunting, trapping, poisoning, traffic fatalities and habitat destruction. Although the American badger is not presently considered threatened, there are warning signs, for instance, in Canada and in New Mexico, that may signal concern for the future.

Some Interesting Badger Facts

  • A male badger is known as a "boar;" the female, as a "sow;" and a young one, as a "kit."
  • The American badger's thick fur has served as a decorative trim on Native American clothing; its thick bristles, for shaving brushes; and the finer hair, for paint brushes.
  • Although primarily a land animal, the badger, says McClymonds, will luxuriate in shallow water as it cools off. It also swims and even dives.
  • The badger hunts one of its favorite prey, the rattlesnake, with impunity because, with the exception of its nose, it seems immune to the serpent's venom.
  • Presumably because of its heavy bodied shape, the badgered was originally classified, taxonomically, with the bears, according to authority Steve Jackson.

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