Ontario Badgers > Identification


What does a badger look like?

A badger leaves its burrow, covered in reddish sand.

A badger's legs are very dark, but because of their short stature, they aren't always noticed.

Though generally grayish in colour, there can be reddish and yellowish colour in the coat as well.

The short and wide body shape of a badger is usually quite noticeable

 

Size and Shape

Badgers are short and stocky animals, with a wide and "flattened" appearance. They are about 60 to 70cm (23 to 30 inches) long, with males being larger than females. On average, a female badger weighs 7kg (15.5 pounds), whereas a large male can be up to 11kg (25 pounds). In general they are about the size of a large raccoon, though they often look much larger due to their heavyset build. A badger's coat is shaggy and often forms a sort of "skirt" that can sometimes obscure their short legs from view.

Colour

A badger's most distinctive characteristic is its black and white facial markings: black "badges" on the cheeks and a white stripe that runs from nose to neck. The rest of the body is a generally a grizzled gray that may also show yellowish or reddish patches. A badger's legs are black, though due to its short stature and often shaggy "skirt" of fur, they aren't always visible. A badger's furry tail is the same colour as its body

Movement

A badger's adaptations for digging give it a unique and somewhat awkward movement above ground. They are not particularly quick on their feet and tend to "waddle" when running. Their fur can sometimes obscure their feet and give them the impression of "flowing" across the ground. A badger's short tail is not usually noticed, but sometimes it is held straight up into the air while running. Though they are not fast, badgers are relentless when moving and those who have observed them hunting often compare them to "small tanks".

There are additional pictures of badgers along the right hand side of the page.


Videos of badgers

Here are a few videos from the YouTube archive. One of the videos is provided here and all are linked to below. Additional pictures of badgers (from the Ontario and British Columbia badger projects) are available on the right hand side of the page.

(If your browser disables this video, use the link on the left)

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How to distinguish badgers from other animals

The white stripe on a badger's face runs lengthwise from its nose to its neck.

No other animal in Ontario has front claws so proportionally long.

A badger's fluffy tail is the same colour as its body, though it is often held close to the body and not noticed.

Below are images and comments about the three animals most commonly confused with badgers

(Other mammals occasionally confused with badgers include Muskrat (brown, naked rat-like tail), Skunk (black and white), and Mink (brown, weasel shape). Additional comparison between similar species can be found here and here.

 

Groundhog: Overall brown colour; no markings on face; body shape and tail similar to badger, though half the size.

Raccoon: Dark "bandit" mask; conspicuous striped tail; humped back.

Opossum: White face with dark ears and occasional dark strip coming down forehead; naked rat-like tail; also has black legs.

A badger's Unique features

Though badgers have a characteristic appearance, there are many times when identification is not simple. This can be a particular challenge when we are trying to identify badgers in photographs or when they have been killed on the road. In general there are three features you should pay attention to when trying to determine whether you are indeed looking at a badger: Head, Claws, and Tail.

Head: The black and white markings of a badger are a very useful tool for identification. Most distinctive is a white stripe running lengthwise from the nose to the back of the neck. There is also a conspicuous black "badge" on each cheek. A badger also has very large ears for its size, and they are positioned on the side of the head, rather than the top of the head like most other Ontario mammals.

Claws: There isn't an animal in Ontario that comes close to having such proportionally long front claws as a badger. When these are seen they are unmistakable. Claws might not be seen on a live badger, but on a road-kill they will remain as long as the rest of the skeleton and are often the best means of identification. Keep in mind, though, that only the front claws are this long; the hind claws are similar in size to other animals.

Tail: A badger actually has a fairly long and furry tail. But because it is the same colour as the rest of the body, and often held closely to the body, it isn't always very conspicuous. However, the tail can still be a very helpful feature to eliminate other options.

Commonly mistaken animals

The animals most often confused with badgers are raccoons, groundhogs, and opossums. The differences may seem obvious at first glance, but there can be many similarities between these that can make identification surprisingly confusing.

Groundhog: Groundhogs actually have a very similar body shape to a badger (wide and stout, with short legs) and because of this both can look similar when running. They also share a relatively short and furry (not naked) tail that is the same colour as the body. However, groundhogs are mostly brown, and have no distinct markings on their face. They are also about half the size.

Raccoon: Raccoons are roughly the same colour and size as a badger, but have longer legs and a humped back. While most people are familiar with the dark "bandit" mask of a raccoon, its most distinctive feature is its striped tail. No other mammal in Ontario has a striped tail, and this usually remains visible even on road-killed raccoons for weeks. A raccoon also lacks the very large front claws of a badger.

Opossum: The opossum is a relative newcomer to Ontario, having migrated north from the US over the last several decades. An opossum has a white face with dark ears and eyes. It has dark legs like a badger, but its feet are more like small hands than paws, and it lacks the long claws of a badger. It also has a naked, rat-like tail.


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How to recognize badger burrows and diggings

A badger may have several dozen burrows in its territory, most of them along the edges of fields.

This spill of dirt down the bank is very distinctive of a badger burrow

A badger kicks out a lot of dirt when digging, and this is very evident when the burrow is fresh

Often badgers will dig several burrows beside each other, especially along banks.

A very typical badger burrow - about 10 inches wide and not quite as tall

Some burrows, like this natal den, are larger underground and have a much bigger dirt pile

A small badger "dig"

Usually the most obvious feature of a badger burrow is the dirt in front

Close-up of a badger burrow entrance, showing distinctive shape and some claw marks on the side of the burrow

Badger Burrows

Digging is very important in the life of a badger.  They catch much of their prey by digging, and use underground burrows for shelter and raising their young.  In fact most of a badger's physical features, like long claws, strong legs, and a stout body shape are specifically adapted for a digging lifestyle.

Unlike most other burrowing animals, badgers are nomadic. Except in the spring when they are rearing young, they don't often spend very long in any one spot. This means that a badger might have several dozen burrows throughout its home range that it uses throughout the year. Burrows in areas that are ideal for long term use (such as those in a bank along the edge of a forest or field) might be visited repeatedly for generations. Others might be dug opportunistically and only used once.

What does a Badger Burrow look like?

Many other animals also dig burrows, so recognizing the unique features of the work of a badger is very important to studying them. Though confident identification can not always be made, a typical badger burrow is general a bit wider than tall, with a large fan of excavated dirt at the entrance.

  • About 25 cm (10 inches) wide and 20 cm (8 inches) tall and very slightly oval
  • Lots of excavated dirt when fresh
  • Usually along an edge of some sort especially where there is a slope or bank
  • Claw marks are often found on the inside wall due to a badger's long claws and "breast-stroke" method of digging

In addition to those burrows they dig specifically for shelter, badgers also dig opportunistically for prey. Sometimes they enlarge the burrows of their prey species, such as groundhogs, and sometimes they make shallow digs in the soil whose purpose aren't entirely known. These burrows and digs are much more variable in appearance and often cannot be identified with certainty.

Badger Burrows vs groundhog burrows

By far the most similar burrow is that of the groundhog. Groundhog burrows tend to smaller (about 2/3 the size), often more rounded, and they generally lack the "messy" spread of dirt that badgers kick out so energetically. When found on a slope, groundhog burrows will rarely show the spill of dirt all the way down the front of the slope, and instead the dirt appears more like it's been mounded directly in front of the entrance. Where badgers and groundhogs coexist the situation becomes more confusing, as badgers will enlarge groundhog burrows when they are hunting them and groundhogs will colonize old badger burrows.

Foxes and coyotes also dig dens, but theirs are taller than badger burrows (to accommodate a different body shape and the "doggy-paddle" digging method of canines) and usually larger as well. Unlike badgers, foxes and coyotes tend to use a den only for rearing their young.

Importance of burrows for research

Because badgers in Ontario are so rare and elusive, finding a burrow is usually the best confirmation that a badger has been in an area. Beside telling us what sort of habitat badgers might prefer, burrows are also the best way to collect one of our most important research tools: hair. Badger hairs can often be found in the entrance of fresh burrows, and we can use specially made "hair-snag" devices to collect hair if a badger returns. The DNA fingerprint from hair analysis allows us to identify individual badgers and learn about how many there are and how they move through the landscape. Reports of burrows are the most important sightings we receive and every one adds to our understanding of badgers in Ontario.


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What do badger tracks look like?

Badger Tracks

The most distinctive feature of a badger's tracks are the long front claws. However these claws, and the fact that they have 5 toes (like skunks and raccoons) rather than 4 toes (like dogs and cats) do not always show up in a print. When the claws are not visible, a badger track looks a bit like a cross between a large cat's track and a small dog's (a bit like a fox, in fact). Another helpful characteristic is that a badger is somewhat "pigeon-toed", which can sometimes be evident in its tracks (see photo). Here are some links to great online resources for badger tracks, and tracking in general.

A badger's long front claws are distinctive when seen, however they don't always register in the track

A fresh badger track, showing the similarity between its pad and that of both a cat and dog


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