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Badgers

BadgerOften depicted as vicious, it's true that you wouldn't want to get into a fight with a badger. But there are few animals as important to the shrub-steppe ecosystem. The badger should be exulted, not denigrated.

Appearance

 

A member of the weasel family, North American badgers are part of a world-wide family that varies greatly in size, behavior and adaptations. However, the weasel family (Mustelidae) exhibit some common characteristics. They are typically small animals with short legs, short, round ears and thick fur. Most mustelids are solitary, nocturnal animals and are active year-round. This certainly describes the badger.

Not the largest of the North American weasel family—wolverines, river otters and sea otters are bigger—the badger nonetheless seems much larger than its true size. Looking akin to an Olympic power lifter as they trot towards you, the stocky, short-legged badger gives off the appearance and attitude that nothing best get in its way. In truth, badgers measure between 23 to 30 inches and weigh about 15.5 pounds for females and around 20 pounds for males, although when food is plentiful, they can get up to around 26 pounds. In short, they're not much bigger than a beagle, although my money's on the badger in a fight with the beagle—or just about any dog, for that matter.

Badgers are quite distinctive. Apart from the dense body, badgers have huge front claws (more on that in a minute) and a triangular face with distinctive black and white striping. One stripe extends from the nose to the base of the head and in one subspecies (T.t. berlandieri), the stripe extends all the way to the base of the tail.

 

Distribution

 

Speaking of subspecies, there are four in North America—T.t. taxus, found in central Canada and the central United States; T.t. jacksoni, found in the southern Great Lakes region, including southern Ontario; T.t. jeffersoni in British Colombia and the western United States; and T.t. berlandieri in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. However, the ranges of subspecies overlap considerably, and you're likely to find intermediate forms in the areas of overlap. The subspecies found on Umatilla NWR is T.t. jeffersoni, which only matters in that it tends to be the largest subspecies.

Okay, you've made it through the technical stuff, now lets find out how badgers live. Read on. 

Badger Closeup

 

 

Lifestyle

 

Badgers are considered fossorial carnivores. Okay, you know what a carnivore is, but 'fossorial?' A fossorial critter is one that is adapted to digging and life underground, such as the badger or naked mole rat. It is used to describe the habit of living underground, even if the physical adaptations are minimal— thus, most bees and many wasps are called "fossorial Hymenoptera," and a great many rodents are considered fossorial. Some organisms are fossorial to aid in temperature regulation, while others utilize the underground habitat for protection from predators or food storage. Anyway, badgers prey predominantly on rodents, often digging to pursue prey into their dens and sometimes plugging tunnel entrances with objects. They also prey on ground-nesting birds—such as bank swallows or burrowing owls (which is ironic, as we'll see later)—and lizards, amphibians, carrion, fish, skunks, insects and some plant foods, such as corn, legumes, mushrooms and other fungi and sunflower seeds. If you've been paying attention, you're probably saying, "Hey, I thought you said badgers are carnivores. What's with the plants?" Well, like most carnivores, occasionally badgers will eat a few vegetables, but it's a fairly rare occurrence.

Badgers are largely nocturnal, but you can see them during the day. While badgers don't hibernate, they do tend to become less active in the winter. Like many animals, the trick is to minimize energy loss in the winter, so badgers may spend much of the winter in cycles of torpor that last around 29 hours. Since their prey is inactive, migrated away, or inaccessible due to frozen ground, badgers have little choice but to expend as little energy as possible and wait for better days to come.

Badgers are incredible diggers. The huge front claws—measuring up to two inches—powerful shoulders and compact bodies are designed for moving earth, either to create dens or to dig out rodents. However, badgers are not above 'borrowing' the abandoned burrows of other animals.

 

Hunting

 

Related to digging, there is evidence that badgers will sometimes form hunting partnerships with coyotes, although whether this is by design or by accident is unclear. Coyotes are not very effective at digging rodents out of their burrows, but they are effective at chasing them while they are above ground. Badgers, on the other hand can't run down a rodent, but they are great at digging them out of burrows. When badgers and coyotes hunt in the same area at the same time, they may increase the number of rodents available to the other. Certainly, coyotes benefit from rodents attempting to escape from badgers attacking their burrows, but it's less clear if the badger benefits from the association; badgers may be able to take advantage of rodents that are escaping coyotes by fleeing into burrows. In any event, badgers and coyotes tolerate each other's presence and may even engage in play behavior.

 

Reproduction

 

Badgers are normally solitary animals for most of the year. However, come breeding season, which occurs in late summer and early fall . . . Males may breed with more than one female. Pregnancies are suspended until December, or as late as February, and the young are born from late March to early April. Litters range from one to five, averaging about three. Badgers are born blind, furred and helpless, but they grow fast. The cubs, as young badgers are known as, emerge from the den when they are five to six weeks old, and they leave their mothers as early as late May or June.

 

A Badger's Life

 

A Badger's Life. Badgers typically live 9-10 years in the wild, with the longest life span known being 14 years. The longest lived badger in captivity was around 15-1/2 old.

Badgers live just about anywhere that has deep enough soils for denning and where rodents live—grasslands, parklands, farms, treeless areas, forest glades, chaparral, marshes, brush, deserts and meadows. Occasionally, badgers can be found at elevations up to 12,000 feet, but they prefer elevations lower and warmer than those characterized by coniferous forests.

Badgers are strong and aggressive and have few natural enemies. Small badgers are sometimes taken by golden eagles, coyotes, cougars and bobcats. Bears and gray wolves occasionally kill badgers. But badgers are most threatened by humans, either through direct killing for any of a host of ill-conceived and ill-informed reasons, through a loss of habitat, or through accidental poisoning related to rodent control.

Not to badger you, but there a bit more of this article to read on the role of badgers in the ecosystem.

Badger Burrow

 

 

Ecology

 

In the shrub-steppe of the Mid-Columbia Region, badgers play an important role. Obviously, they help to keep rodent populations in check. They eat carrion, insects and venomous snakes, which are vital roles in the ecosystem. Digging aerates the soil. Abandoned badger burrows provide shelter, or even nesting sites, for many other animals, including rabbits, snakes, coyotes, etc. But it's the badger's benefit to burrowing owls that may be of greatest importance in the area.

Burrowing owls are small owls that nest underground. Burrowing owls are in sharp decline throughout much of their range due to destruction of habitat and declines in the populations of the animals that create their nesting sites. Despite their name, burrowing owls do not dig burrows, instead relying on burrows abandoned by other animals, such as the hero of our story, the badger. While dependent on a number of factors, abandoned badger burrows are often perfect nesting sites for burrowing owls. As such, a decline in badger populations, for whatever reason, is frequently mirrored by a decline in burrowing owl populations, although there are usually a number of contributing factors. However, there is no doubt that badgers are important to burrowing owls, and we care about both species.

Page Photo Credits — Badger on Page 1 - Jerry Oldenettel, Badger on Page 2 - Jon David Nelson, Badger on Page 3 - Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Last Updated: Jul 23, 2014
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