Sunday, 3 April 2011

Wisconsin - Bucky Badger and the World's most fearless Animal

Wisconsin is known as the badger state, not because of its badger population, but because of the Cornish miners who came to this part of the United States in the 1840's, earning the title 'badgers' because of their fossorial work and the fact that they spent their first cold winters in Wisconsin huddled up in caves, living in much the same way as badgers do.

The Animal

There are three main types of badger - the Eurasian badger (with the sub-species meles meles or Common Badger, most familiar to readers in the UK and Ireland), the Ratel or Honey badger, which lives across Africa and Asia and is believed to be one of the world's most fearless animals and the American badger, which is found in most parts of the US and Mexico. 

The badger is a nocturnal creature and lives mostly on worms and insects, although they do sometimes eat smaller animals and have a penchant for baby rabbits!  Contrary to popular belief, they don't generally attack chicken coops and, apart from the Honey Badger, which is feared because of its aggressive behaviour, they are generally peaceful animals and live in harmony with each other and humans. 

Origin of the word 'badger'

There seems to be some uncertainty as to the origin of the English word 'badger' - the Oxford English dictionary links the origins of the word to the French bêcheur which means 'digger'. Other sources claim that it comes from the word for 'badge', which refers to the distinctive white stripe badgers have going down the middle of the their forehead.  Other European languages also refer to the badger as a digger, like the German word Dachs (and the 'badger dog' or Dachshund) or the Latin Taxidea Taxus (American badger).  Some languages call the badger 'grey', like the proto-Celtic brokko (and the English dialect word brock). In parts of Eastern Europe, the badger seems to have earned a bad reputation and Albanians call them vjedull which seems to be related to the word vjedhës, which means thief.  Our attitude towards badgers in the English language also seems a little bit negative, if you think of the phrase 'stop badgering me!'

Badger lifestyles 

Badgers live in complex underground burrows known as setts.  They are notoriously fussy about keeping their setts neat and tidy and go to great lengths to replace old bedding.  They are unusual in the animal kingdom in that they defecate outside their living area in small 'latrines' which they dig into the ground.  They also remove dead badgers from their setts and 'bury' them somewhere outside.  Although they don't hibernate in winter, they tend to be less active then and badgers in Russia will disappear underground for months on end.  They have a great sense of smell, but poor eyesight, seeing in monochrome.  They have incredibly coarse hair and tough skin.  Badgers can't flex their backs like weasels or stoats, however the Honey Badger has the ability to stand on its hind legs, no doubt an evolutionary development to help them hunt insects on the lower parts of a tree. 

You can find out lots more about badgers at www.badgerland.co.uk

The following Youtube video, which was posted by the Missouri Department of Conservation shows the American badger in its natural habitat:



Badgers and humans

Man is the badger's greatest enemy and, despite the fact that the cruel blood sport of badger-baiting has been illegal for quite some time, the belief, in more recent years, that badgers harbour diseases which are detrimental to cattle, has lead to the mass extermination of badgers in many European countries.  Having said all that, badgers seem to be incredibly popular in the UK and Ireland and charities like The Badger Trust  have been set up with the express purpose of protecting badgers in Britain and elsewhere.  Badgers have been eaten by humans, in the past, and formed a substantial part of the diet for some Native American tribes, as well as many people in Europe and Asia.  Badger hair is still used in the production of shaving brushes.  I thought these had gone out of fashion a long time ago, but I guess they're still used by professional barbers? 

Badgers have also cropped up in literature and folklore.  I'm thinking of Mr Badger in The Wind and the Willows and also the fact that, in Irish folklore, badgers were believed to be have magical qualities, such as the ability to shapeshift.  Modern mythology has given us urban myths such as the man-eating badgers of Basra, claimed to have been released by the British army in Iraq to chase suspected terrorists! 

Bucky Badger and the University of Wisconsin

A google search for 'Wisconsin Badgers' will undoubtedly lead you to one of the many sports teams from the University of Wisconsin-Madison that use the badger as their mascot.  Bucky Badger, in his red and white-striped sweater, has to be one of the world's busiest mascots, attending hundreds of sporting events every year!  A documentary film entitled Being Bucky was released during the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2009 and explores the lives of some of the young men behind the mascot. 

I'll leave you with the trailer for Being Bucky:



Image credits:

The image of the badger was taken by flickruser Fred Dawson,  who is chairman of the Malden Camera club in London.  You can find out more about Fred and see more of his images at his flickr page - thanks Fred for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.
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