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NATURE HAPPENINGS - November 2002

Where the Pronghorn
and Prairie Dogs Play

by Damian Fagan

I followed the set of tracks along a small desert wash in the Cisco Desert. The long nails and overlapping print pattern were clearly evident in the soft muddy sediments, giving away the signature of its owner - an American badger. Of course, as I walked along the wash I would often look up and search the bend before me - no need to take one by surprise. The tracks went up a small embankment and terminated where the badger had disappeared down into an oval-shaped burrow.

One set in, no tracks out. Though I waited a good hour with my camera ready (plus long lens!) the badger never appeared. I thought of the phrase “Let sleeping dogs lie” and figured that this was applicable to badgers as well. No need to “badger” this one.

From a distance a badger almost looks clownlike, with a large bulbous nose, white-and-black striped face and dachshund-height, but this comical appearance rapidly degenerates as a badger gets closer. “Controlled fury” may be an anthropomorphic description, but there is an intensity about these fearless predators that catches one’s attention.

Though basically nocturnal, badgers may be active in the day, rumbling across open plains or trotting along canyon bottoms. Designed to slip into abandoned burrows or rapidly excavate one of their own, badgers are built low to the ground with a flattish shape and a wider-than-higher body. Their thick grizzly-gray coats make them appear larger than they are.

And with front feet that are partially webbed - and have long, curved claws - and hind feet with shovel-like claws, badgers are digging machines. A badger can excavate a prairie dog burrow faster than a man with a shovel. Bad news for some small rodent seeking shelter in an underground burrow.

Badgers prey upon ground squirrels, mice, kangaroo rats, small rabbits, and pocket gophers, as well as worms, birds, reptiles and carrion. Badgers will even take rattlesnakes, unharmed by the venom as the snake tries to strike through the badger’s thick, protective coat. Adapted to tunneling after prey, hence the long and shovellike claws, badgers have been known to lose an escaping rodent to an opportunistic coyote, who patiently waits for an easy meal pf escaping rodent.

Related to skunks and weasels, the American badger exudes (not sprays) a shunklike musk. The musk may be a way this solitary predator marks its territories against other male badgers or acts as a signal to receptive female badgers who are entering estrous in late summer or early autumn. This musky odor attracts other badgers through olfactory senses, rather than through vocalizations like bird songs.

One aspect of badger mating that is interesting is that the fertilized embryo is in a sort of suspended animation until midwinter. Sometime from December to February, the egg will then implant into the uterine wall and resume development. Though the female badger may be technically pregnant for seven months, the embryo develops in less than seven weeks.

A good place to look for badgers in November is where the pronghorn and prairie dogs play. The Cisco Desert, Green River Desert or Hatch Point are just a few locations to search for badgers. A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope might be helpful to scan the open desert (plus to help you keep your distance), but also be on the lookout for tracks or large craters that might reveal past activity of this powerful desert creature.

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