The badger is a short, squat animal with a wedge-shaped head. Adult badgers weigh between 13 and 30 pounds, and are 25 to 35 inches in length. Males tend to be larger than females. The gray fur can have a slight yellow or silver cast. The face has a white stripe that extends from near the nose to the top of the head and sometimes onto the neck and back. White markings also extend from the sides of the mouth onto the cheeks and around the ears. A striking black bar (badge) follows the jawline.
Badgers are adapted for digging up burrowing rodents, which are their main prey. Their short, squat profile and wedge-shaped head are well suited for maneuvering in tight places. A badger's front feet each have five toes tipped with sturdy claws up to two inches in length. Small folds of skin form a partial webbing between the front toes. This webbing helps a badger to scoop out large "handfuls" of dirt. Thin, transparent membranes protect a badger's eyes from dirt particles as it digs. Its ears are short and round, with long, stiff hairs that help keep dirt out of the ear canal. Massive shoulder and neck muscles allow a badger to dig faster than a person with a shovel.
Distribution & Abundance
Accounts from early settlers suggest that badgers once were common in the northern three-quarters of Illinois. As people settled in Illinois, the badgers' range was quickly reduced to the northern third of the state. The decline was primarily due to the fact that the settlers were cultivating the prairies where badgers lived and were killing badgers because cattle and horses could injure themselves by stepping in burrows. Badgers nearly disappeared from the state by the late 1800s, but their population eventually began to recover. By the 1950s they had reclaimed all of their former range and had even started dipping into southern Illinois.
Badgers are now found throughout Illinois. They're most common in the northern half of the state and least abundant in the southernmost counties. Some of the highest populations are found in the sand prairies of northwestern and central Illinois.
Badgers prefer grasslands, but few large tracts remain in Illinois. They make the most of scattered grassy areas like pastures, roadsides, fencerows, field borders, ditch banks and railroad rights-of-way. Woodlots, cemeteries and idle crop fields are other important habitats.
Badgers live alone except when raising their young. In areas of excellent habitat, they spend most of their time in an area 1 to 2 miles in diameter. In most parts of Illinois, they require larger areas because grassland habitats are scattered. Adult females spend their lives in an area of about five square miles. Males cover an area about three times as large. Females travel an average of three-quarters of a mile per day while males move slightly more than a mile per day. Badgers are most active at night, but might be seen shortly after dawn or just before dusk. They sometimes sunbathe near their burrow entrances.
In the northern part of their range, badgers build up a layer of fat during late summer. This helps to keep them warm and provide energy through the winter. They don't hibernate, but spend a lot of time sleeping in their burrows, especially during periods of extreme cold. In the southern part of their range, they're active all winter.
The badger's sturdy body and powerful shoulders and forelegs help it to dig faster than the burrowing rodents that make up the bulk of its diet. When digging, badgers loosen the soil with their front feet, pass the dirt under the belly and kick it out of the hole with their hind feet. They often spray dirt 3 to 5 feet in the air while digging. Amazed at the badger's digging ability, an early explorer wrote, "They burrow in hard grounds with surprising ease and dexterity, and will cover themselves in a very few moments." A credible source in JoDaviess County reported that a badger burrowed up through an asphalt road.
The mouth of a badger's burrow is about one foot in diameter. During most of the year, badgers rest in the same shallow burrows they dig while searching for food. The burrows used for raising young are often 5 to 30 feet long and have a grass-lined chamber located 2 to 3 feet below the surface.
Badgers have a top running speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour. They can enter a hole either backwards or forwards. They're good swimmers and have been found as far as one half mile from shore.
Common prey include mice, ground squirrels, woodchucks, voles, snakes and toads. Badgers also eat pocket gophers where the ranges of these species overlap. Other foods include cottontail rabbits, moles, beetles, grasshoppers, mulberries, carrion (dead animals) and ground-nesting birds and their eggs.
Badgers mate in late summer, usually August or September. The fertilized eggs in the mother's body develop slightly, then enter a dormant period. The embryos resume their development beginning in mid-February. The young are born about five weeks later, arriving between the end of March and early June. This complex reproductive system helps ensure that young arrive at the time of year when food is abundant. Badgers have only one litter per year. Litters can have between one and seven young, but the average litter size is three.
At birth, young badgers have fur but are blind. Their eyes open at 4 to 6 weeks of age. Weaning occurs when the young are about half grown, but the female brings food to them for some time. The young are taught to hunt when they're about two-thirds grown. They stay in and around their home burrow until autumn. Females are capable of having offspring of their own when they're a year old, but many do not mate until their second year.
Badgers are abundant enough to allow a limited trapping season. This allows people to remove badgers that are causing damage by burrowing in crop fields, pastures, cemeteries and even grass runways at small airports. It also allows the use of a natural renewable resource without endangering the health of the overall population. Badger fur is used most often for trim on cloth coats and in the manufacture of high-quality shaving brushes.
Practices that enhance or create grassland habitats are good for badgers.