It’s funny to consider that the average person is more familiar with the honey badger (Mellivora capensis), a creature from Africa and Southwest Asia, than with the American badger (Taxidea taxus) in our own backyard.
Social media has a lot to do with the honey badger phenomenon and widespread knowledge that honey badgers just don’t care. If you don’t understand this last reference, you will need to look it up.
All of this was swirling through my head recently while photographing a beautiful adult male American badger. Although the American badger looks similar to the European badger and the honey badger, it is not closely related to either one. The American badger is found in open grasslands of the western states and the open pine forests of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states.
The badger is a member of the Mustelidae family, which includes mink, weasels, otters, and wolverines. This diverse group of carnivorous mammals is characterized by elongated bodies, short legs, short round ears, and thick fur. Apart from the sea otter, all mustelids have anal scent glands that produce a strong, musky smell used for marking territories, attracting mates, and more.
Some of the more notable characteristics of the American badger include its stocky body and very short, powerful legs. It has huge, sharp claws on its front feet that can measure up to 2 inches long. The badger uses these claws for digging, which explains why it is often found in areas with sandy soils.”
It’s hard to judge their size until you get close to these animals. Measuring nearly 3 feet from nose to tail, male badgers are slightly larger than females. Larger males are fairly common in the world of mammals, but not as much in the avian world. I think it’s their short legs that give the illusion of being smaller than they really are.
Badgers make a living by eating smaller animals that also live underground, such as pocket gophers, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, mice, and voles. They usually dig to pursue their prey, often taking upwards of an hour to dig enough to trap their prey in a dead-end tunnel. A badger’s overall body size and shape make it an exceptional digging machine.
Once, while I was out photographing the endangered black-footed ferret in South Dakota, I came across a badger in the process of digging into a prairie dog tunnel. It was about 2 a.m., and I had to use my flashlight to illuminate the larger tunnel the badger had dug. About 5 feet down, the badger turned to look at me, growled and snarled, then continued digging. In just another minute or so, it had dug enough to cover itself and disappear into the ground in pursuit of its prairie dog prey.
Another time, I was very fortunate to witness an American badger teaming up with a coyote to hunt in tandem. The two hunted a prairie dog town like old and familiar friends who knew each other so well that they didn’t have to say anything to each other. The coyote would sniff each entrance hole to the prairie dog burrow, and the badger would wait. They would switch back and forth, checking each hole until they decided which burrow they would excavate. The badger would quickly start digging, and the coyote would wait for the prairie dogs to come out at the nearby emergency exit hole.
One study of the amazing pairing of predators found that most pairings were one-to-one, while 9% had two coyotes to one badger and 1% had three coyotes to one badger. The study also found that the benefits to the coyote were a 33% increased catch rate of prey. The study didn’t mention any increased benefit to the badger.
Another study showed that the presence of a coyote would send ground squirrels into their burrows. The badger, observing which hole they entered, found it easier to dig them out. This strategy gave the badger a distinct advantage by helping to corner the prey.
I admit I don’t come across a lot of badgers in my travels. So, when I do, I usually spend extra time just to study and capture as many images and videos as possible of this amazing hometown critter. Until next time …
Editor’s note: Stan Tekiela’s NatureSmart column appears twice a month in the Eden Prairie Local News. Tekiela is an author, naturalist, and wildlife photographer who travels extensively across the United States to study and capture wildlife images.
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