If you recognize the critter in these picture as the North American badger, you have the right animal, but the wrong name.
It’s really a goodger.
I say this in opposition to the commonly accepted name badger (Taxidea taxus) because this 15- to 25-pound, subterranean member of the weasel family isn’t as bad as most folks think.
Well, in some ways it’s bad. But in many ways it’s good.
I grew up hearing all about the low-down, mean, angry, vile, nasty badger that would tear up a dog, a full-grown man and probably any grizzly bear foolish enough to mess with it. Yet I’ve given many badgers ample opportunity to live up to their reputation — and they haven’t. When I chased them as a teenager, they fled. When caught in traps, they hissed and cowered, but never attacked. As a budding wildlife photographer, I lay prone within spitting distance of them and they didn’t pounce on my head and tear my ears off. When I followed them around on their hunting excursions in remote Idaho grasslands, they largely ignored me.
So why the fearsome reputation? Probably because they can and do fight like the devil when cornered — and most folks only see badgers when they’re cornered. Farmers find them in a barn or feed bunk. Suburbanites discover one in the garage or against a chain link fence in the yard. Feeling trapped, a badger will act aggressively, and he has the speed, agility, claws, teeth and muscle to intimidate the biggest foe. Badgers live inside lushly furred, loose hides that shift and yield, making if difficult for attackers to get a decent grip on this tenacious adversary. Any dog that sticks it head into a badger hole is going to come out with rearranged facial features.
Badgers don’t go about the countryside launching unprovoked attacks. They will, however, take advantage of any small livestock humans make available. I once trapped a badger that had clawed its way into a farmer’s chicken barn. A dozen white hens lay bloody and mangled. Several more were crushed to death as they huddled to stay clear of the mayhem.
That sounds like enough carnage to justify the badger’s vile reputation, but really isn’t. Excessive killing like this is merely instinct. Think about it: A predator is programmed to catch elusive game. In the wild this is difficult, and once a prey animal is grabbed, any others in the vicinity flee. At that point the predator assuages its hunger by eating what it’s caught. But when prey is trapped in a confined space, the predatory urge to attack and kill continues being stimulated by the target-rich environment. Before the badger can settle in to dine, he is distracted by another squawking, flapping chicken. Back to the attack. And on and on. Wolves have been recorded doing this in calving caribou herds, grabbing young calves, killing them with a bite or snap of the neck and then continuing the chase to kill more and more without eating but one or two of the last ones killed. Bad, wasteful behavior? Certainly in our eyes, but obviously not in Nature’s eyes.
Humans also label badgers as bad because they dig large holes in pastures and fields. This is like calling birds bad because they fly. Badgers are designed to hunt down dinner by digging with long, sharp, stout front claws and short, thick legs that throw dirt rearward faster than a man with a good shovel. Gophers and ground squirrels have a chance to escape, but not a good chance. Badgers are meat eaters almost exclusively, but they relish snakes and insects as much as rodents and rabbits. Whatever flesh they can catch or scavenge goes down the hatch, and most of what they catch lives underground, so they dig to live.
While burrows and dirt mounds upset farmers and ranchers, they please most other creatures. Skunks, red fox, swift fox, coyotes, jackrabbits, cottontails, burrowing owls, snakes and even toads use old badger diggings for housing. A badger’s excavations aerate soils, open them to plant diversification and funnel rainwater deep underground. Wildflowers incapable of finding a foothold amid matted grasses find fresh ground on badger mounds.
Badgers are primarily nocturnal, but you’ll sometimes find them roaming in daylight. If you do, don’t be afraid to follow them. If they dive down a hole, wait nearby. Curiosity often brings them out, and that’s a great way to get a good photograph of North America’s only “goodger.”
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