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Monday, January 7, 2013

Mother Nature’s Digging Machine

The badger has sacrificed so much sleekness to become a powerful digger that many people are surprised to learn that it is a member of the weasel family.   However, it does belong to that family, and has all of the normal weasel toughness and tenacity.  
It also has a variety of special adaptations that include massive shoulders and short, powerful legs.  The front feet contain long curved claws that can pulverize virtually any soil, and the hind feet are specially adapted to throw this loosened soil back up the hole.  These features help make the American badger and some cousins on other continents the best digging carnivores in the world. 
The American badger’s upper body is covered by a grizzled mixture of white, black, and gray fur that blends in well with grass and brush.  It also has vivid white cheeks and a striking white line that runs across the top of its nose and head to the shoulders.  A large badger can reach 30 inches long and weigh 25 pounds, and would be an extremely handsome animal if its height was proportional to its length.     
Badgers maintain individual territories up to two miles across, and move from one old  burrow to another or dig new ones as they travel around it.  They obtain most of their food by digging woodchucks, ground squirrels, and other burrowing rodents out of their dens, but are also known to eat birds, snakes, insects, and plant material. 
While badgers are usually associated with the prairie and plains states, Michigan does have populations in both peninsulas.  However, many Michiganders have never seen one because our populations are small and the species is largely nocturnal.  I have a venerable old Montana badger skin in my house that encourages sighting reports, but I seldom hear about more than one or two Michigan sightings a year.     
This skin also provides me with occasional badger stories, including a classic chicken coop story from one of my Calhoun County neighbors.  He was awakened by a  ruckus in his chicken coop one night many years ago, and brought his ten year old daughter along to investigate the situation.  When they pushed the coop door open they found several dead chickens and a ferocious, snarling animal that my neighbor did not immediately recognize.  However, he knew that it was not compatible with chickens, and shot it by the light of the flashlight that his young daughter was holding.
This incident illustrates why badgers were viewed as pests in the days when most farms had chickens.  However, those days are gone, and our rural residents have a much better relationship with this interesting and intelligent animal now. 
No article about badgers would be complete without mentioning the lost boy who may have lived with badgers for several days.  While this old Manitoba story was not investigated as closely as it would be now, it does include specific names, dates, and locations.  In addition, the renowned naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton explored the story when it was relatively fresh and accepted its basic truth.     
The story began when five-year old Billy Service wandered away from home and became lost while picking strawberries near Springfield, Manitoba in the summer of 1873.  Billy eventually came to a badger den that had a large side entrance because it had originally been excavated by wolves, and crawled inside when it began to rain. 
Alas, part of the den was being used by a mother badger and two young ones, and the  mother initially tried to drive Billy away.  However, Billy refused to leave, and the mother gradually mellowed as Billy and her own babies became happy playmates out in front of the den.  Remarkably, the legend even credits her with bringing Billy an occasional dead rodent or grasshopper while she was feeding her own babies.  Billy ate enough grasshoppers and strawberries to be reasonably healthy when a neighbor found him at the den ten days later.
This is the story that became a Manitoba legend and inspired a whole genre of novels about children and badgers.  It will always be problematic because of Billy’s age and the sparsely settled nature of the area in 1873.  However, Billy was found in a large badger den and had the sort of scratches and torn clothing that a mother badger might inflict trying to drive him away.   And his descriptions of the playful babies and the way that their mother brought them food are consistent with known badger behavior.  While Billy’s story still needs to be treated with caution, it is too intriguing to leave out of an article on the digging weasel.
Additional Information
More Facts About Badgers
Badgers do best in grasslands but can also live in other environments with dry, diggable soil and large amounts of open land.                  
While badgers have lived more than 20 years in captivity, five years is a more realistic life expectancy for wild ones.  
The American badger is not a true hibernator, but does become lethargic and spends a large amount of time sleeping in its den in cold weather.
The badger’s continual digging can create serious hazards in fields and pastures.  However, it also provides ready-made dens for rabbits, skunks, snakes, and a variety of other animals. 
Female badgers typically give birth to two or three young in a grass-lined section of their den in the early spring.  The pups begin eating solid food and playing outside the den  in late Ssring, and are usually ready to strike out on their own by late summer or early fall. 
Badgers will fight fiercely when provoked. 

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