The American badger is a nocturnal burrowing mammal in the Mustelidae family, which also includes weasels, wolverines, otters, martens, and minks. There are many badger species worldwide, thus the particular designation of the North American species, which occurs in the United States, much of Canada, and down into Mexico. The American badger has a long lineage, diverging from other mustelid groups some 18 million years ago.
The American badger is something over two feet in length and weighing from 15-30 pounds. The fur is thick and course in texture and a grizzled gray, brown and tan in color with a black and white striped head. The ears are very short and thick, suitable in shape for a burrowing lifestyle. Likewise, the short, strong legs with long claws and the squat, wide body shape are also adaptations for burrowing.
Badgers prey on other small mammals, such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, pocket gophers, and various mice and rats. Their normal hunting mode is to dig out another fossorial small mammal, trapping it under ground. They may also hide in a burrow and catch a rodent as it enters its burrow.
Badgers will also take snakes and lizards and are considered one of the rattlesnake’s most important predators. Rather opportunistic carnivores, badgers will also take ground-nesting birds and their eggs, amphibians, and even insects. They can also demonstrate an omnivorous diet, taking vegetables, seeds and mushrooms.
Coyotes are known to prey on badgers, but the two species may also live amicably and observers have even reported coyotes and badgers hunting cooperatively. Researchers have documented higher capture success in coyotes hunting with badgers, though no obvious advantages have been noted for the badger in such associations. Ground squirrels normally escape to their burrows on sighting a coyote, but may come out of the burrow and try to escape by running on seeing a badger, thus falling easier prey to a coyote. Badgers and coyotes have also been observed engaging in what appeared to be play activity with each other.
While normally active at night, badgers may also forage during the day in spring and early summer. These sightings are thought to be mostly females hunting in daytime and then spending the night with their young in the burrow. Badgers do not hibernate, but may reduce activity during the coldest winter weather and can enter torpor in extreme conditions, lowering the metabolic rate to preserve energy.
Badgers are solitary, coming together to mate. The small litters of 1-5 young are born in the spring, having fur but otherwise being blind and helpless at birth. The eyes open after about a month and the female will nurse the young in the burrow and feed them solid food as well, until they come out of the natal den after 5-6 weeks and start foraging independently. During the summer the young disperse to start their own solitary lives. Longevity is probably 9-10 years on average with the oldest recorded wild badger being 14 years of age.
Prime badger habitat is open prairies with abundant small mammals. They are also found in forest meadows, marshy areas, and agricultural lands. The home range varies widely with sex and habitat suitability. Males normally have the larger ranges with females staying nearer natal dens. Seasons also dictate the range of activity, with winter ranges being much reduced over summer. A female’s range in winter may be as small as 5 acres, but normally ranges are much larger, in the 2,000-acre vicinity. Population density is low, with one study in Utah finding about one badger per square mile and with each badger having about 10 burrows in its range.
Though badgers enjoy relative freedom from predation, known predators on badgers include eagles, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions, as well as, of course, humans. Vehicle mortality is the main culprit, but people also trap badgers and sell their fur, which may be used for shaving brushes or paint brushes.
Badgers produce ecological benefits in controlling rodent populations and in providing burrow refuge habitat for burrowing owls, which also help to control small mammal populations in prairie and agricultural lands. Due to habitat losses to development, and to hunting, badgers have been listed in California as species of special conservation concern.