In Search of the American Badger

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A Conservation Story by Carla Rich Montez. Photo of an American badger emerging from a burrow courtesy of Eric Ellingson/ Creative Commons. 

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 grassy well-drained 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 of the details we’ve learned.

Not just another pretty face. Named for that signature white stripe, or badge, on its forehead, the badger is a wary animal active only at night. And though that trademark face and waddling gate may be disarming, the badger can be ferocious when attacked by a predator. With sharp teeth, two-inch claws, unpleasant musk odor and vicious growl, this animal is a menacing opponent that can easily break loose from its attacker and quickly turn to wage an assault. At 30 inches long and about 22 pounds, the badger is a formidable opponent.

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American badger photo courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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.

A badger’s home is more than a single residence. Rather it is a complex of holes, tunnels and chambers that, when complete, may be as long as 30 feet - and that’s just the first one! In practice, badgers will dig multiple passageways sometimes excavating a new tunnel every day. Along the way, badgers will catch their food, namely burrowing rodents like mice, ground squirrels, woodchucks, and voles (though the badger won’t turn down a good snake or toad). Badgers will also dig 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 planning 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 challenges of single parenting. 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.

Thank you to Richard E. Warner for his assistance with this story. 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.


About the Author

 Carla Rich Montez is an Illinois Master Naturalist volunteering as an outdoor writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. Carla has spent most of her career in communications working largely in higher education as well as in the healthcare and energy industries. In these roles, Carla has engaged in a wide range of writing for both print and electronic media. Carla’s interest in outdoor writing has its roots in her upbringing on a Western Illinois farm where her parents cultivated her affection for nature.