Badger – the very name seems to conjure a sense of terror on par with a character from Harry Potter uttering the name Voldemort.
‘Badgers are horribly vicious!’
‘Never mess with a badger – they’ll kill you!’
I’ve always heard horrible things about badgers, but as soon as I got my first glimpse of this gregarious member of the weasel family, none of this horrible stuff made sense. With a sandy-stripped face imprinted by expressive down-turned eyes, a brow that seems to reveal a perpetual state of inquisitiveness and those Mr. Potato Head-like ears, a badger certainly doesn’t look like a cold-blooded killer.
In the past four years, I’ve had the chance to observe/photograph several badgers, and every encounter contradicts their vicious reputation. My most exciting, educational and revealing encounter with a badger happened recently (April 2017) in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. This experience confirmed what I already knew to be true, badgers definitely do not live up to their terrifying reputation.
A dark-ish, rug-like shape trotted into view, stopping occasionally to sniff the mounds created by the endangered prairie dog, which are rare, but very common in the protected Grasslands. The figure was much bigger than a prairie dog, low to the ground and extra furry. Through a zoom lens, we could see the unmistakable striped face of a badger – shock waves of excitement exploded through three mustelid-loving photographers/observers: Jill Cooper, Simon Jackson (my friends and founders of GhostbearPhotography.com) and myself.
This is one of the species we really wanted to find in Grasslands. Simon and Jill have had quite a bit of experience with badgers, so in talking with them and others, I had already learned a lot about a badger’s territory and behaviour. But there is nothing like seeing the animal in action! And while the light was harsh/not great for photography, this badger put on quite a show for several hours. In fact, the Grasslands badger eliminated an residual belief in the ‘vicious’ creature I had and left me with an even bigger love and respect for these amazing animals.
Awareness – this is a trait I feel applies to the whole weasel family, and is why photographers have the opportunity to get amazing images of badgers (and weasels in general). Badgers always seem to stop and check out their observers. For photographers, this means the chance of a head-on shot with eye contact – we photographers love that! Sure, you still have to act fast to catch it, but a face shot of a badger is a very real possibility.
In the past, I’ve called this an innate weasel-like curiosity, but this goes deeper than simple curiosity – badgers continually assess their environment for potential threats and possible opportunities. They might be startled by a person or another animal, but they are not going to randomly run for cover without intense awareness of their surroundings. Sometimes, badgers may see you, be aware of you, but still go about their regular business (if you keep your distance of course), which is exactly what happened with the Grasslands badger.
In Grasslands, it wasn’t only three photographers intensely watching the badger, hundreds of eyes were on him, aware of his every move. The eyes belonged to the prairie dogs he was hunting. We watched the badger in Grasslands trot through what is called a prairie dog town. He knew there were hundreds of prairie dogs surrounding him, but he also knew randomly chasing one that was already aware of his presence was not a good hunting tactic.
He had to use his powerful sense of smell and long claws to dig for an unaware prairie dog. So that’s what he did, and he was relentless in his digging. And at one point, the digging turned into what seemed like playing, or perhaps a dirt bath? He nestled in a mound of fresh dirt, rolled around like a dog trying to get comfortable and used his large paws to throw dirt over himself. It was absolutely remarkable. Then we watched him dig and dig and dig some more, sometimes disappearing into the hole he created for an hour or so before re-emerging. Simon and Jill actually saw him catch a prairie dog after hours of observation (I had left at that point).
This hunting strategy hardly matches a badger’s reputation of being an erratic, blood-lustful predator that will go after anything that moves. Quite the opposite – this badger was surrounded by his prey, but did not put the run on hundreds of prairie dogs for the sake of a hunt. He knows how to thrive in his environment and is intelligent enough to use his tools as effectively as possible.
Mild-mannered and Adaptable
Human’s should not, but other animals CAN and DO mess with badgers. We watched the grasslands badger stumble into the territory of what we assume belonged to a pair of mating burrowing owls. The tiny owls went after the badger with the furiousness of a lion – talons out, wings flared. The badger did not fight back, in fact he barely reacted – he knew he was in another predator’s territory and simple moved on. I managed a very distant shot of the action.
Again, not exactly the behaviour of a ferocious killer.
What’s the moral of the story here? Badgers are not vicious, they are tenacious, intelligent and adaptable animals who will do what ever is needed to survive. Sure, they will stand up for themselves when threatened or cornered, they have the teeth and the claws to look scary and can do some significant damage – maybe this is why they get a bad rap? But regardless of predatory abilities, all animals (and humans) instinctually defend themselves – this is not unique to a badger.
I find observing wild animals to be such a gift, particularly when I get to see behaviour that contradicts my preconceived ideas. Badgers are just one of many examples of the mind-expanding process of changing how I view the world through observing animals.
Questioning my assumptions around animal behaviour opens me up to seeing the complex layers of human behaviour as well – perhaps this enhances my ability to feel compassion and empathy for all of Mother Nature’s creatures? I like to think so.
Here’s a challenge to my readers – are there any animals you have changed your perception about through photography or observation? If so, please feel free to comment below.
Until next time, continue to love life and everything wild 🙂