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The badger game

July 1, 1993

The badger game

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Participating in the old badger game usually means using dishonest tricks to lure a person into a compromising position and then taking advantage of him for profit or sport. This practice by some nefarious humans undoubtedly got its name from the so-called sport of badger baiting that was popular in England during the 19th century but has since been banned.

Animal sadists would place a badger in an upturned barrel and unleash a dog to attack the beast and try to drag it from its artificial den. With one end of his refuge blocked, the badger had no choice but to resist the hound with its formidable teeth and claws. Wagers would be placed on the ability of various dogs to drag the badger out of the barrel. It is believed that the dachshund breed of dogs was developed in Germany primarily for badger baiting in the wild. This activity was practiced in the Western part of the United States during the 19th century before it was made illegal.

The practice of badger baiting has given rise to use of the word “badger” for worrying or teasing. The courage, viciousness, and endurance of the badger made him a prime candidate for baiting. Dr. Robert Hegner, the renowned Johns Hopkins University zoologist, thusly describes coming upon a badger away from his hole, and when he and his party got close to him: “He turned on us with a savageness and fury that would put a wildcat to shame.”

Badgers are found throughout Illinois except in the extreme southern part, being more prevalent in the northernmost counties. At one time they were so common in Wisconsin the state became known as “The Badger State” and the residents were called “badgers.”

These animals prefer to set up housekeeping in open fields, where they sometimes become a nuisance. In northern Illinois, in the early 1900s, hazards to livestock were created by the holes dug by badgers in pastures. When a prized horse stepped into one of these holes and broke its leg, an open season on badgers was declared. So many badgers were killed by “varmint-hunters” that in the 1970s they were placed on the protected species list for Illinois.

The slender gracefulness we usually expect in a member of the marten family of mammals (martens, skunks, weasels, wolverines, et al) is absent in the badger, which, on the contrary, is heavy and clumsy and looks almost as flat as a doormat. He is pre-eminently a digger and has a small flat head, a short neck, and very powerful front legs with claws more than an inch in length. The back of the badger has a grizzled appearance with a mixture of white, black, and yellowish hairs. The underside is whitish or tan. The top of the head is black with a median white stripe from the tip of the nose to the middle of the spine. The hairs are quite stiff and make excellent brushes, especially those used for shaving.

The badger not only digs in the ground for himself and his family, but he makes his living by digging out the burrows of other animals such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, gophers, and woodchucks. His evenings are usually spent traveling from one hole to another, digging out and devouring the unfortunate occupants.

If it is ever decided to dig a tunnel under the Rock River, it is suggested that badgers be recruited for the job. One badger’s burrow in Jo Daviess County was explored, and it was found to lead to the surface directly beneath a blacktop road that supported heavy truck traffic. The badger appeared to have no difficulty mining through the blacktop, leaving a hole in the roadway.

A biologist once kept a badger in the basement of her home and discovered it had been able to dig through an inch of concrete. Apparently the animal searched for flaws in the concrete and picked out little pebbles until an opening was afforded for his claws and then jerked out sections of the concrete and tossed them aside. It is suggested that if you encounter a badger while strolling through a field on a nature hike you do not “badger” it, but give it a wide berth.

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