American Badgers: Four-Legged Excavators

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Members of the weasel family, American badgers produce a strong musk odor from glands near the anus, which helps deter would-be predators.
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Badgers feed on small animals, and have no problem capturing their prey.
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When fear strikes, a badger’s first instinct is to head to a burrow to escape harm. When that’s not an option, it will hiss, snarl, growl, and may even charge its assailant.
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Badgers feed on small animals, and have no problem capturing their prey.
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Badgers use their sharp claws to construct burrows that can reach depths of up to 10 feet.

The American badger (Taxidea taxus) is one of the largest members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) in North America, second only to the wolverine, and it’s one of nine species of badgers found worldwide. Its relatives include the Eurasian badger, honey badgers of Africa and Asia, minks, skunks, and ferrets.

Badgers are stocky in stature, with a short, thick neck and short, powerful legs that are armed with long, sharp claws. They have thick brown and black fur, with a distinctive white stripe in the middle of the face and black or brown patches, or “badges,” on their cheeks — hence the name “badger.” Like other members of the weasel family, American badgers produce a strong musk odor from glands near the anus, which helps deter would-be predators. If you’ve ever smelled a skunk, you know the smell!

Adult male American badgers grow to about 2 feet long and weigh up to 20 pounds. Females are only slightly smaller, weighing around 15 pounds when
fully grown.

Habits and Habitat

Badgers can be found in central and western Canada, most of the central and western United States, and as far south as central Mexico. While most abundant in prairie regions, they can also be found as far east as the Great Lakes and as far west as the Pacific Northwest; however, these represent the edges of badger distribution, and populations are small and isolated.

Badgers mainly inhabit prairies, farmland, pastures, deserts, and woodland edges. They prefer open areas with soils that provide easy digging, and tend to avoid heavily forested areas where extensive tree roots interfere with their ability to dig. Badgers especially favor areas known as “edges,” where two or more different plant communities come together, such as pastures and agricultural fields. Edges harbor high concentrations of potential prey animals. Although it’s not common, American badgers have been known to live at altitudes as high as 12,000 feet.

Badgers are digging machines, using their claws to excavate prey animals from their burrows. They also construct numerous, often complex, burrows that can reach depths of up to 10 feet. Females with young may construct several burrows with connected tunnels, providing escape routes and cover for their offspring. These dens may be 2 or 3 feet deep and up to 30 feet long. Their burrows are frequently the enlarged burrows of prey animals they’ve excavated.

In winter, badgers occupy permanent burrows, often remaining in them for several days, and sometimes even up to several weeks. While badgers don’t truly hibernate, they frequently remain in a state of inactivity, or “torpor,” during the cold months, in which they sink into a deep sleep for several days at a time. This helps them conserve energy while prey animals, many of which are also in torpor or hibernating, are scarce.

In warmer months, badgers frequently dig a new burrow every day and only occupy them while sleeping. American badgers are mostly nocturnal, although they can be active during the day too.

Badger home ranges vary between the sexes, as well as by season. Male home ranges may be up to 2-1/2 square miles, while female home ranges are about half that. These ranges are typically larger during the summer, when prey species are more abundant. A male will increase his home range to 2
or 3 times its size during mating season in search of females. Badgers, especially males during mating season, may cover several miles in a single night. Females with young travel much shorter distances on a daily basis.

During the winter, badger home ranges and activities are more contracted. They may use as little as 10 percent of their home range. Badgers are not known to defend a specific territory, although they do use scent markings to help find mates.

In prime habitat, American badgers may reach densities of 15 animals per square mile. But in most circumstances, badger densities are in the area of one per square mile.

Badgers feed on a wide range of small animals, such as ground squirrels, gophers, prairie dogs, mice, snakes, and birds and eggs. They occasionally eat plants, and sometimes scavenge large dead animals, such as deer and antelope. Excess food is frequently buried or stored in their dens for later use.

American badgers capture prey mainly by using their powerful digging claws to excavate a burrow. Coyotes often benefit from hanging around badgers as they dig out potential prey, because they can catch small animals that run out of the burrow to escape the badger. Animals that try to avoid the coyote by diving into a burrow are captured by the badger; it’s a win-win for both coyote and badger.

Badger Biology

American badgers are normally solitary animals, except during mating season or with young. Mating season typically occurs during late summer and early fall, with males often breeding with more than one female. Males frequently fight over females and often have numerous scars to show for it.

Males reach sexual maturity at about 1-1/2 years of age, while females attain sexual maturity much earlier and can begin reproducing at less than a year old. Most female badgers will reproduce their first year. Males don’t assist with the rearing of the young.

Female badgers exhibit a trait known as “delayed implantation,” whereby fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterus and begin to develop until several months after mating. In badgers, the implantation process usually takes place between December and February. The timing helps ensure that the young are not born during the coldest, and most stressful, season.

As a result of this delayed implantation, the female is technically pregnant for at least 6 months. After implantation occurs, the actual gestation period is only about 6 weeks, with the babies, called “kits,” being born in March or April. Badger litters range in size from 1 to 5 kits, with an average of 3. Like many mammals, badger kits are blind and furred when born. Their eyes open at 4 to 6 weeks of age, and they first emerge from the den shortly afterward, under the watchful eye of their mother.

Young badgers are usually weaned around 2 or 3 months old, at which time they start eating solid food brought back to the den by their mother. Young badgers don’t stick around long after weaning; they typically disperse at about 5 or 6 months old, which is generally in late summer, although some badgers leave their mothers as early as May or June.

The average lifespan of an American badger is 9 to 10 years in the wild. In captivity, they’ve been known to live 25 years or more.

Badger senses reflect their adaptation to digging and spending much of their time underground. Although they have poor vision, their senses of hearing and smell are especially acute. This assists them in their pursuit of burrowing prey. Badgers also have special nerve endings in their foreclaws; this may increase the sensitivity of their front paws, which would be especially useful for digging and capturing prey animals from burrows.

American badgers have a reputation for being feisty and tough, even when facing large predators, including humans. When cornered, their first inclination is to head toward the closest burrow and go underground. If that’s not an option, badgers will hiss, snarl, and growl — and may even charge.

Among some Native American people, the warriors admired the badger for its tenacity and refusal to back down when confronted with an enemy. Its reputation for persistence also made badgers a symbol of good fortune among many tribes, with some peoples forming badger clans.

Few animals, with the exception of mountain lions, bears, and wolves, prey on adult badgers. Coyotes, mountain lions, and golden eagles prey
on juveniles.

Conservation and Status

Badger populations in North America are fairly healthy. The most common sources of badger deaths are encounters with automobiles, as well as trapping and hunting. Throughout most of their range, badgers are managed as game animals. At the edges of their distribution, they’re protected due to small populations.

When fur prices are high, more badgers are trapped and hunted. Badger fur isn’t considered high quality overall, and it’s mostly been used to make the bristles in shaving brushes.

Badgers are considered pests by ranchers and farmers in many areas because livestock can be injured by stepping in their burrows. Badger burrowing can also damage roads, dams, irrigation canals, and agricultural fields. On the positive side, badgers consume large numbers of rodents
and assist coyotes in capturing even more rodents.

While badgers seem to tolerate human presence fairly well, habitat destruction caused by residential and commercial developments, and the elimination of prey species, such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels, can have an adverse impact on their populations. Habitat alterations also cause a reduction in prey species, which may cause badgers to prey more on domestic animals, such as chickens. Increased human development also leads to increased deadly encounters with vehicles.

The American badger is one tough animal. Fossil records indicate that it’s been part of North America’s wildlife for roughly 6 million years, which is definitely a testament to its adaptability. Wise conservation practices to protect the badger’s habitat and prey will help ensure that badgers continue to be part of our wildlife heritage.

John E. Marshall is an entomologist with the Mobile County Health Department in Mobile, Alabama. He lives in Irvington, Alabama, with his family, dogs, cats, and chickens, and finds all animals interesting.

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