Walking down one of the aisles at the Montrose Library, I spied a book I haven’t read since … well, a very long time.
Wind in the Willows was first published in 1908, and our local library has three copies. Among the pages are the adventures of Rat and Mole “simply messing about in boats.” The escapades of Toad are here; and the wisdom and stability of Badger.
The book jumped off the shelf at me. I sure enjoyed Kenneth Graham’s book — it’s a short read — but Badger seemed to reach me more this time.
One of my first encounters with a badger was not far from the South Rim Campground at Black Canyon. Out on an early morning foot patrol, I spotted a white, brown, and black-furred creature waddling along on one of the loops in the road.
It was uninterested in me; I’m sure it was searching for a morsel. After a brief snort at me, it strode off in a manner that was half trot, half waddle. I followed it, knowing these creatures can be cantankerous.
It turned on me with a growl and a clacking of its teeth. I’m sure I was seven times its weight and many more times its size. Yet the badger acted as though it would give me a charge. Courage is not uncommon in the natural world, but this animal was startling.
Badgers have reason to be nervy, as two adaptations have made them formidable. Their skulls have a pronounced sagittal crest. It’s a bony ridge on top of the skull to which the jaw muscles are attached.
Adaptations to their jaw structure combine with extra strong muscles to give these predators a powerful, swift bite when encountered. One researcher found they are powerful enough to leave teeth marks on the iron of a spring trap.
As burrowing mammals. badgers are also equipped with great digging muscles. The front feet have noteworthy claws for loosening earth, and the toes are partially webbed for better scooping. After a suitable amount of excavating has been done, they shift gears and the rear legs push the dirt backwards and out the hole.
And they have a nictitating membrane This is a clear layer that acts as an inner eyelid. It covers the eye to keep dust out and moisture in. It gives this mammal an edge when pursuing prey below the ground’s surface.
Badgers are pretty clever hunters. They might lurk within a squirrel’s burrow for an ambush when the rodent returns, or they might use human-made features to cloak their movements. They will eat almost anything — insects, reptiles (rattlesnakes seem to be on the menu), birds, mammals, and if in need of some roughage, they have been known to eat berries and nuts.
They usually dig after their prey, but research shows that they team up with coyotes to catch their targets. The coyote might chase its quarry underground. The badger goes after it, forcing the first one out another hole for the coyote, but catches the other rodents that are still below ground. Estimates suggest that coyotes are one-third more likely to succeed in catching prey this way.
But if a coyote is that hungry, why not just eat the badger? Badgers are smaller, slower, and offer more to eat than a couple of mice. Remember that surly attitude? They are fierce creatures that can stand up for themselves. Mark Twain had it right when he wrote, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
This might have been the kind of boldness that another ranger encountered on the Rock Point Trail years ago. The badger was snarling and chomping at him. It rushed him and then retreated. His thought was that maybe we should relocate the badger away from the visitor area. My thought was, yeah — you go ahead and grab him.
Badgers are committed by their daring and have carved out a place on earth. We can all take a lesson from Mr. Badger’s playbook. The mindset we bring to our approach with others is what matters. Ambling away is sometimes the best strategy, yet somehow badgers become more than they would be by their courage.
Or as he says in Wind in the Willows, “The Wild Wood is pretty well populated by now; with all the usual lot, good, bad, and indifferent … It takes all sorts to make a world.”
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.