Blane Klemek: The American badger makes its living in Minnesota
Now that my kids are grown up and gone, I often enjoy remembering times afield with them when they were both little. I remember a time when the three of us went out for a drive near the east side of Itasca State Park on a dusty township road when we noticed an unusual animal running alongside the roadway ahead of the vehicle.
The pelage coloration immediately gave away what it was, as did the animal’s gait and profile. It moved surprisingly fast for such a squat creature, yet for all its motion we could not distinguish even one of its four limbs or feet.
Moments later the animal made an abrupt turn to its right and up the roadside embankment and into the woods. It was then that my boy and girl saw for the first time in their lives a live and wild badger. We slowed down and stopped to see him turn, face us, and then quickly back down — rear-end first — into its burrow.
The American badger is a member of a large family of mammals. The species belong to the weasel family, Mustelidae. Its scientific name is Taxidea taxus, which means, redundantly, “badger-like badger.” But back in the 1700s some taxonomists believed badgers were related to bears (for a time, the feisty badger’s Latin name was Ursus taxus, meaning, “bear-badger”.)
Other members of the weasel family include short-tailed, long-tailed, and least weasels, in addition to mink, river otter, fisher, marten, and wolverine. Skunks, too, belong to the family, yet controversy exists amongst mammalogists concerned about skunks’ relationship and origin. Literature in some scientific journals has skunks placed into a family of their own.
But of all members in the weasel family, the American badger is one of the most unique of them all. No other weasel spends as much time underground, is built as such, or has a pelage to match. The badger is in a class all by itself.
First, the animal is perfectly adapted to a semi-fossorial (underground) lifestyle. Squat, low-slung, short limbs, and powerful, the badger is equipped with long claws and heavily muscled front legs, all of which provide the perfect body design for digging.
Even its skin is specially designed. A badger’s skin is loosely fitted over the body so they can rotate inside it. While tunneling, badgers need to be flexible so they can turn or dig upside down. Having tight fitting skin would hinder maneuverability.
Not many creatures will attack a badger. Badgers have the reputation and distinction of being fearless and exceedingly strong. If danger should reveal itself in the form of a predator, backing down is not something a badger does. In the event of a fight, the aggressor is faced head on. Victory is typically the badger’s.
Even so, it is interesting to note that a breed of dog was developed to hunt badgers. The German word for badger is dachs. Hence, the dachshund, which shares many of the same anatomical features as badgers (short and powerful legs, long body, loose skin), was used to fight badgers. These tenacious and combative dogs would even enter the underground tunnels of badgers to force the animals to come out.
Badgers are primarily nocturnal creatures. Couple this with the fact that much of their time is spent underground, seeing a badger is actually quite rare, even though they are common and widely distributed. Rarity aside, identification of a badger is easy. Facial traits include white markings around the eyes and cheeks and a long, thin white streak from its nose, up its head, and down to its neck and shoulders. The remainder of its body fur is a grizzled, kind of salt and pepper, color.
I have actually only observed a handful of badgers throughout my lifetime thus far. During my summers in North Dakota traversing across miles and miles of prairie roads, I once came upon a whole family of badgers crossing the road in front of me. The animals were such a surprise to see that I couldn’t resist pulling to the side of the road and getting out for a better look.
Upon seeing me, the mother badger was quick to get her youngsters ahead of her as she abruptly turned to face me. I was a full twenty or so yards from the badger and her cubs, yet the fire in her eyes told me to back off, which I most certainly did.
On another occasion while hiking through grasslands of the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary that I formerly managed and lived, I was startled by the sudden movement of a badger just a few feet away from me. I thought the animal was a raccoon at first, but I quickly realized that it was no raccoon at all. The badger wanted nothing to do with me, yet it wasn’t about to concede me any ground.
It moved to the top of a mound of dirt that surrounded its burrow with such deliberate resolve that it disarmed me. Not that I intended any harm toward the animal, but had I been a predator intent on tangling with the likes of it, its actions spoke volumes to me — that though short in stature: Don’t disturb. Don’t approach. Just go away.
Indeed, the American badger makes its living right here in Minnesota digging and hunting for prey. Leading mostly solitary lives under the cover of darkness and below the earth, looking for these incredibly fascinating mammals is a wonderful reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)