Mammals: North American Badger

Early morning light sifts through the scattered Ponderosa pine forest. A finger of trees lowers into the pleasant valley below in Kootenai Country Montana. With the Salish Mountains in the backround, the lower montane woodland and shrublands meet a Palouse Prarie — Grassland type. The soils here are a light tan to gray, and are suitable for burrowing. This large weasel’s feet are not furred and its claws are long and reliably register in the tracks. This is the perfect habitat for the American badger, the only true fossorial carnivore in North America!

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The badger (Taxidea taxus) is remarkably adapted for burrowing and feeding on burrowing prey. The body is stout, heavily compacted, and designed low to the ground. It is built to defend itself. Body length is approximately 20-30 inches and average weight is about 20 pounds. The black feet have partially webbed toes and extremely long claws to aid in excavating. This furbearer is a yellowish grey mammal with a distinguishable white stripe over the top of its head, white cheeks and a black spot in front of each ear. The triangular face has a distinctive black and white pattern, with brown or black “badges” marking the cheeks. Badgers have a fur coat that is made up of an underfur with long guard hairs and a mix of brown, white, and black streaked fur. This dirt lovers belly and short five-inch tail are yellowish. Their coat appears loose fitting and in motion they appear to flow along the dusty surface of the ground.    

Badgers are also built for attack and often chase prey into their own dens. They are an extremely efficient predator of fossorial and semi-fossorial prey. They are considered opportunistic feeders and diet may include: mice; squirrels; groundhogs; gophers; moles; pica’s; prairie dogs; voles; snakes; ground nesting birds; skunks; insects; bees; bank swallows; burrowing owls; lizards; fish; and wood rats. The American badgers closest relative is the prehistoric Chamitataxus. These efficiently designed aggressive animals have few natural enemies that are willing to risk injury or death by tangling with them, but some predation occurs on smaller individuals by golden eagles, cougars, coyotes, and bobcats. Very occasionally wolves or bears may kill adult badgers.    

American badgers are mainly nocturnal, but can be quite active during the day, especially in the early morning hours. At peak heat times, they may rest semi-dormant in foraging burrows. Usually these unique creatures den in burrows of their own making and natal dens can be 7-feet deep and 5-feet wide. Some false chambers may be dug to confuse potential predators. Breeding season is from May through August, and with delayed implantation the young are born anytime from February to May. Litter size ranges from one to four kits. The North American badger does not hibernate, but becomes less active in winter. A badger may spend much of the winter in cycles of torpor that last about 30 hours. It may emerge from burrows when temperatures rise above freezing. Abandoned badger tunnels and dens may be occupied by foxes, skunks, or burrowing owls. At times, coyotes will position themselves in proximity of solitary foraging badgers to catch any escaping prey. Badgers will often pursue prey into their dens sometimes plugging tunnel entrances with objects or “throwing a plug” by filling an entrance with dirt.    

The mystery of the recent excavations of early morning are becoming clear. Near one such entrance the head of a snake sits slightly to the side of a burrow that seems to be plugged with dirt. At another nearby burrow site the entry hole appears elliptical, about nine inches wide and six high. There is a throw mound of dirt that is indicating recent diggings. In the powdered soil a pigeon-toed trail is evident. Back tracking again to the snake head in the sandy soils the story is coming together. An aggressive North American badger has hunted down a snake, biting its head off to complete the kill. After completing its mission, it entered a foraging burrow to eat its meal in peace. To guarantee a quiet repast, it has thrown a plug of dirt into the entrance. It is quiet and cool in this fossorial carnivore’s world, and all is as it should be in Kootenai Country Montana.    

(Authors note: Reference Mammal Tracks and Sign - Mark Elbroch.)