Maybe you’ve heard or seen the phrase “Honey badger don’t care,”—popularized by an Internet video—and wondered, “What, exactly, is a honey badger?” Good question. Honey badgers are fascinating animals, but you’re not likely to see one in the U.S., as they are not native to North America. But don’t despair, because we’ve got the American badger! Even though it’s not closely related to the honey badger, the American badger is impressive and fearless, too—in fact, those two adjectives are practically part of the badger definition! Read on to learn more about these smart animals and how to solve the occasional conflicts that arise between badgers and people.
Looking for a badger
Although they do share some similarities, American badgers are not closely related to the European badger either. Instead, their closer relatives are here in North America and include the wolverine, marten, and mink. The American badger is a member of the weasel family and weighs 15-25 pounds, about the same as a raccoon, although its short, stocky, wide body makes it look larger. White cheek patches and a white stripe running from nose to neck are helpful identifying marks, and strong legs and inch-and-half-long front claws make badgers world-class diggers. Badgers have grizzled fur with grey, tan, and other colors, long grey guard hairs, and long fur on their haunches that can hide their feet. When their feet are hidden, they appear to undulate over the ground, especially when they’re in a hurry.
Look for badgers in the western portion of the U.S., southern Canada, and northern Mexico. They prefer grassy, weedy edge habitat (such as between field and forest), in a hedgerow between fields, along old fence-lines, windbreaks, or tree lines. Their burrows vary greatly in appearance—some have entrances in the open, while others are hidden in vegetation, ravines, or gullies. Usually they’re excavated in edge habitat and have an entrance about 10 inches wide and fewer inches tall. Even so, finding badger burrows may be easier than encountering the animals themselves, as the badgers living in a given area may have hundreds of burrows among which they shift around. Other species sometimes use them too.
Badgers are mostly solitary, except in the breeding season, and they are nomadic, moving from burrow to burrow every few days. While they’re most active at night, which is when they hunt and travel between burrows, they are sometimes active at dawn and dusk, too.
In the summer, badgers are seriously on the move, as both males and females cover a lot of ground while seeking partners. After mating in late summer, implantation and development of the embryo are delayed until winter, enabling the young to be born in early spring, a more promising time to raise them. One to five baby badgers are born in each litter. They’ll stay in their burrow for several weeks, being raised solely by their mother. After nursing them for a couple weeks, she’ll start bringing them small animals she has hunted. Eventually she’ll take them hunting. By late summer, they’ll be self-sufficient enough to disperse, leaving their mother free to embark on the next breeding cycle.
Unlike some other burrowing animals, such as the woodchuck, badgers do not hibernate in winter. They may stay in their burrow for extended periods in extremely harsh weather, but it is not true hibernation.
Woodchucks are among the many animals badgers pursue as prey. Others include the Columbia ground squirrel, yellow-bellied marmots, northern pocket gophers, prairie dogs, chipmunks, rabbits, voles, mice, skunks, and less often, frogs, toads, eggs, insects, and carrion. Interestingly, badgers are qualified as tool users. When cornering a burrowing prey animal, they plug one burrow entrance while digging into another entrance to corner the animal. Badgers are prey themselves for cougars, coyotes, eagles, and bears.
Badgers are good citizens, despite the bad press they sometimes get. Considering their prey list, you can see that they help keep several highly prolific species in check. Their participation in grassland and dry forest ecosystems keeps them in balance, and they also help keep rodents in check when they wander into residential areas. Their burrows are often adapted for use by other species, making them good neighbors for those animals.
What to do when badgers aren’t helpful
Badgers need lots of habitat, as their home ranges can be rather large—around 375 acres for females and around 8750 acres for males. Unfortunately, habitat loss causes badgers to sometimes end up in conflict with people in urban and suburban areas, such as when they encounter unattended cats or small dogs and treat them as prey. Badgers do not prey on people, though. They may put on an aggressive display, but they would only attack a person if deliberately provoked.
If you have a badger living in your yard and want the animal to leave, keep in mind that badgers move to a new burrow every few days anyway, except for the first several weeks that a mother is tending her young. Soon even a mom will move elsewhere with her babies, and through the summer, they’ll move every few days just as solitary badgers do. If a badger burrow is problematic for you, wait for the animal(s) to leave, and confirm their absence by loosely filling the hole with crumpled up newspaper. If the newspaper remains unmoved for 48 hours, then it’s probably safe to assume the hole is currently inactive. You can then close the burrow by digging out the opening, laying down a sheet of hardware cloth, securing it with garden stakes, and covering it with soil, rocks, or mulch. If it is outside baby season and for some reason you cannot wait a few days for the badger to move on his own, you can sprinkle a capsaicin- based product, such as Critter Ridder, in and around the burrow. Given the badger’s helpful habit of keeping rodents in check, though, you may want to rethink chasing one off.
This is true for badgers living in burrows adjacent to farm fields, too. In fact, some farmers are beginning to appreciate the badger’s services. Some even take steps to encourage badgers to stay. Here are a few ways to enjoy the benefits of badgers as neighbors:
- Add tall grass prairie plants, which provide cover and seed eaten by badger prey.
- Intersperse these with corn or soy fields to reduce erosion and loss of nitrogen.
- Leave some natural vegetation around irrigation ponds.
- Mow less frequently, and leave wider edges between natural and mowed areas and around fallow fields.
- Enjoy the benefits of wildflowers—greater plant diversity prevents erosion, helps pollinating insects, and improves soil health!