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In search of the American badger

American Badger out in the wild

By Carla Rich Montez, Extension Master Naturalist serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties

It’s not easy to examine the life of an animal that is secretive, solitary and nocturnal.

Just ask any scientist who has attempted to study the American badger. In fact, details about its range, population, and behavior are not yet fully understood. Even the lack of historic data confirms that the badger has long been an elusive research subject. 

Yet the once inconspicuous badger is now visible in nearly every county in Illinois – a development that started in the early 1900s as the once pervasive prairies gave way to the plow. As their preferred habitat disappeared, badgers were forced to find new places to live that still provided them the dry, sandy soils they required for tunneling, shelter and food. 

Ultimately, badgers chose the remaining open grasslands and pastures that were yet undisturbed by intensive row crop practices. And while this adaptation enabled the badger to survive, it also made the animal more observable – a boon to researchers

As we continue to accumulate more knowledge about this mysterious mammal, we’d like to share some details that may interest you. 

Not just another pretty face.

 Featuring a triangular-shaped head; upturned nose; short round ears; black bar along its jawline; and that signature white stripe, or badge, on its forehead, the face of the American badger is unmistakable. Indeed, those trademark facial features notify all aggressors that this animal is not to be trifled with. When captured, the badger’s thick, loose fur makes it difficult to grasp, so it can easily break loose from its attacker and quickly turn to wage an assault. That’s when the real show begins. With its sharp teeth bared, two-inch claws extended and unpleasant musk released, this growling and hissing defender, at 30 inches long and about 22 pounds, is a menacing opponent. 

Home sweet homes

Beyond those threatening good looks, the badger physique has another purpose. That wedge of a head, flattened body and short legs are superbly built for digging – a serious job to an animal that sleeps, hunts, caches food and raises its young underground. 

In fact, a badger’s home is really a complex of holes, tunnels and chambers that begins with a unique opening. The badger gouges a wide entrance, about 10 – 12 inches in diameter, that tends to be steep – a feature that distinguishes the hole from that of other diggers like the woodchuck or skunk. Another novelty to the entrance is that it features an expansive plume of dirt that can reach up to ten feet in length. When complete, the burrow may be as long as 30 feet - and that’s just the first one! In practice, badgers will dig multiple tunnels and chambers sometimes excavating a new burrow every day.

While digging, the badger will also look for food, namely burrowing rodents like mice, ground squirrels, woodchucks, and voles (though the badger won’t turn down a good snake or toad). Occasionally it will cache its food for later consumption. Along the way, badgers will also excavate chambers for resting or, in cold winter, for prolonged periods of inactivity, called torpor, in which their body temperature and pulse will lower and reduce their need to forage. 

Family life the badger way

Badgers live alone until the mating season commences in late summer. During this period, males and females will have multiple partners but will resume their solitary lives when the mating period ends. Once pregnant, the female will hold her fertilized eggs in a state of suspension, called delayed implantation, until the time of year when food is abundant. Then, the embryos will resume their development. So while the female will be pregnant for seven months, her embryos will develop for only six weeks. Between March and early June, as the days lengthen and the temperatures rise, the babies will be born. The mother will produce only one litter each year, giving birth to an average of three kits; she will raise them on her own until they leave the den in the fall. Fewer than 40% of the juveniles will live to adulthood as they will succumb to predation by coyotes and dogs or will be hit by vehicles. Those that do survive will live an average of only four years.

Check out these additional details. 

So while we have learned much about the American badger, it is still a secretive animal posing challenges to all who would try to understand it. As scientists continue their quest to study the badger, here are some details that will provide some insights about this impressive animal. 

  • Badgers cover up their scat, so it’s hard to find.
  • The badger has partially webbed front feet that form a “shovel” for moving dirt while digging.
  • Badger fur was once favored for trim on hats and coats, but it was also popular in the manufacturing of shaving brushes.
  • A badger can dig faster than a human with a shovel.
  • For protection while digging, the badger has thin membranes that cover its eyes and stiff hairs that keep dirt from its ears.
  • Badgers have excellent vision, hearing, and smell.
  • The badger is a cousin to the skunk.
  • The front tracks of a badger point inward; they are pigeon-toed.
  • The range of a female badger is about five square miles; the male will range approximately 17 square miles.
  • Coyotes and hawks may follow the burrowing badger to catch prey that escape.
  • The badger has a breaststroke digging style.
  • A threatened badger will enter its den backwards to ensure it faces its opponent.
  • While a threatened badger is dangerous, it will avoid confrontation when it can. Unprovoked attacks on humans are rare.

About the author: Carla Rich Montez is an Illinois Master Naturalist volunteering as an outdoor writer in Fulton, Mason, Peoria and Tazewell counties. For this story, she gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Richard E. Warner, Professor Emeritus, Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Senior Scientist, National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.