It was a clear balmy day on the plains, the grass dancing an intricate ballet on the wind. An adolescent coyote was cavorting like a young balloon out on holiday. Just weeks from his mother’s tutelage, finding food was a bit like dumpster-diving—an occasional mouse here, a lizard there—he was hungry. Then he glimpsed an earthen mound tended by a frumpy animal half his size. “Lunch,” he thought! The novice hunter approached from behind. Startled, the quarry wheeled like a dervish and charged the coyote, gnashing what appeared to be six rows of teeth, shredding his ear. In a flurry of confusion amid screams, snarling and yelps of pain, the fracas sounded like a back-alley beating! Defending his ground, the ambushed animal backed up against the entrance to his den, snapping, growling and hissing. For the coyote, the situation had deteriorated in all its particulars. The youngster, with a bloody ear and wounded pride, containing his distress in some private space, yielded to fate, turned tail and ran. First encounters with a badger can be complicated, especially if no one ever explained it to you!
There’s something ominous about badger DNA that gives most other animals pause. American badgers are related to the wolverine, a northern cousin infamous for its ferocity. Other relatives include weasels, otters, ferrets and skunks—all quick-witted, confident kinsmen. There are 11 species of badger, grouped into 3 types. In addition to North America, badgers live in Japan, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, India and most of Europe.
The North American badger is found in the western and central U.S., northern Mexico and parts of Canada. In Texas, they’re found as far south as the Gulf Coast and all the way to the Davis Mountains out west. In general, they occupy the entire range inhabited by ground squirrels and prairie dogs, which are their principal food. You might occasionally spot a badger in east Texas in cleared spaces or artificial grasslands.
Badgers prefer large tracts of open, uncultivated ground. They avoid heavy woods or rocky soil and generally are nocturnal, although they’ll forage during the day in areas without much human activity. While it’s rare to see a badger, when you do, he’s distinctive. With black feet and face, grizzled grayish shaggy fur, a white crescent on each cheek and a white stripe from nose to shoulders, his markings are bold and stark. This wide-bodied, low-slung creature is built like a fire plug. Badgers have small eyes and ears, a pointed nose, and thick front claws an inch or more long. Because of stumpy legs, they tend to shuffle rather than walk. But don’t be misled: badgers can swim, climb and run up to 20 mph for short periods—a formidable predator.
If badgers are so vicious, are there any predators they have to worry about? Well, believe it or not, in the Old Country, it used to be the diminutive dachshund! These little dogs were bred to hunt badgers in Germany a long time ago (somehow, I have a hard time visualizing a malicious weenie dog terrorizing a badger!). In Texas, cougars are the main predators of badgers, while in other parts of the country gray wolves and bears join the club. There have been instances when young badgers are taken by golden eagles, coyotes and bobcats, but, depending on the maturity of the youngster, it’s a risk the predator must calculate correctly.
American badgers average 30 inches long and weigh up to 19 pounds (33 pounds when times are good) and are more than a match for most large carnivores and dogs. In one recorded instance, a badger successfully defended itself in a fight with two coyotes. In addition to their pugnaciousness, badgers have a scent gland that can emit a strong musk odor when threatened.
A badger’s forte is digging (“badger” comes from the French word “becheur” for “digger”) and they’re perfectly built for it: a conical head, bristles on the ears and a translucent membrane that can be drawn across the eye to keep dirt out. Badgers hear very well and have an acute sense of smell, second only to the dog family. Being especially fond of ground squirrels and prairie dogs, when a potential meal escapes into a hole, the badger follows behind furiously digging out the burrow, forcing his prey to the end of the tunnel—blocking its escape.
Badgers use their long, thick front claws to break fresh ground while their back legs kick out the excess dirt. They are known to dig faster than any mammal, including a man with a shovel. A recent Texas Tech research report detailed how a badger was encountered on Padre Island as it sought refuge in a shallow burrow in a sandbank. Three people, working frantically with shovels for more than an hour, tried to capture the animal. The ultimate score was badger-1, humans-0!
Sometimes different hunting styles complement one another. According to research, coyotes have been known to “book-end” a hunting badger. When a ground squirrel, for example, sees a coyote, the common defense is to escape into a nearby hole. But when that same ground squirrel spots a badger, the defense is to pop out of the hole and outrun the badger. As you can imagine, it’s a bad day for the rodent when both predators hunt simultaneously!
Badgers are creative gastronomes. Even though they’re partial to burrowing rodents badgers enjoy an impressive list of other delicacies on their menu. Rabbits, burrowing owls, chickens, fish, lizards, snakes, and amphibians are on page 1. In South Dakota, badgers are considered the most important predator of rattlesnakes. On page 2 you’ll find insects (including bees and honeycombs), eggs and veggies like corn, peas, green beans and mushrooms—even sunflower seeds. Finally, at the bottom of the menu when times are tough, a badger isn’t too proud to pass up a good serving of roadkill.
American badgers don’t exactly hibernate but may sleep through several days of especially cold weather, subsisting on stored body fat. In most parts of Texas, they are active throughout the entire year. Males are called boars; females are referred to as sows and youngsters are called cubs. They live about 10-12 years.
Badgers are solitary animals, except in breeding season (November, usually). Pregnancies follow a process known as embryonic diapause (delayed implantation), common among about 100 other mammals. This essentially “buys time” for birthing under better conditions (available food, mild weather, previous offspring weened). In badgers the embryo remains in a suspended state of dormancy until December to February before attaching to the uterine wall. In most cases, cubs come in March or April and remain with their mother until the fall when everyone goes their own way.
Badger holes, called setts, are an important part of badger life. They usually have multiple holes: hunting lodges, food storage vaults and birthing dens. Surrounded by great heaps of mounded earth, these shelters are shallow, except during breeding season, when badgers dig a nest chamber deep below the ground. Natal dens are normally larger and more complex. Birthing females may create 2-4 burrows in proximity with a connecting tunnel for concealment and protection of their young. While natal dens are traditionally used for longer periods, cubs may be moved to allow momma new hunting grounds while staying close to the nursery.
Sometimes badgers will use dug out prey holes as a temporary den, especially if hunting is good in the area. Most of the time though, a regular den is dug to customized specifications, somewhere from about 4 feet to 10 feet in depth and 4 to 6 feet in width. Badgers, when threatened, will back into a burrow and bare their teeth and claws. They may even bar entrance by plugging up the front door.
If the badger was characterized as one of the Seven Dwarves, it would most certainly be “Grumpy.” Grizzled, solitary, ornery looking, and willing to fight at the drop of a hat, it’s hard to come up with a more spirited mascot—at least in Texas. In my opinion, we couldn’t have done worse selecting a mammal to symbolize our state. Specifically, I think Texas should’ve snapped up the cantankerous badger as our state animal early on, but no; we picked one of the wimpiest animals on earth—the armadillo! It wasn’t like badgers were already taken! The badger was adopted as Wisconsin’s state animal in 1957. So, why does Wisconsin—a land full of dairy cows—get to have the badger as its state animal? It all stems from a nickname (they were called badgers) given to early miners who lived in temporary caves cut into the hillsides of Wisconsin. No disrespect to armadillos, but I think we blew it!
By Larry Gfeller