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Posts Tagged ‘hierarchy’

My wife was unexpectedly working late, so I seized the chance for a quick trip to the woods. I’m glad I did,One of the cubs because it turned into one of the best evenings of badger watching I’ve ever had.

My aim was to try and spot the badger with the white patch behind his ear and see if I could recognise him again. In the event I didn’t, but I got to see a whole lot more.

I arrived at the wood quite late, and worried that the badgers would be out already, I stalked the last few hundred yards to the sett so I wouldn’t disturb them if they were. There is an art to walking silently through a wood, and although I’m not perfect at it I’ve definitely improved over the years. In the event it proved unnecessary, but you can never be too careful. I’ve made that mistake in the past – strolling along to the sett confident that badgers would still be underground, only to come face to face with an early riser.

Two of the cubs emerged first, just before 8.00pm. They spent the next 40 minutes happily scuffling about, noses firmly to the ground. They don’t seem to be going great distances yet, but they have got the hang of foraging around the vicinity of the sett.

After a while they were joined by the adult I think of as their mother, a long, lean badger. Of course, she’s unlikely to be the mother of all the cubs (and she may not even be female) but she seems to show more interest in them than the other adults. Shortly after, the three of them were joined by another four cubs.

Wait a minute, there are five cubs at the sett. I’ve said so in the past. Well, it seems I was wrong. There are definitely six. One of them seems smaller than the others, so it may be a separate litter and have come out later, but it was foraging along happily so it has obviously been out many times before. I may well have missed it when the whole family has been at the sett entrance. I guess I don’t know everything about these particular badgers – not by a long way!

The \'mother\' with two of the cubsIn a very short space of time I had eight badgers wandering about under my tree. I was not more than 8-10 feet away from them. If I had dropped a peanut from my pocket I could have hit a badger on the nose. Being so close meant that I had a great view of different behaviours. There was the usual musking going on, both from the ‘mother’ to the cubs, and strangely, from one of the cubs onto another adult. I don’t know what that means for the hierarchy.

I saw another social behaviour up close. The ‘mother’ would go up to the cubs, and it looked like she was biting them on the neck. It was actually social grooming of some sort, and the interesting thing is that she went methodically from cub to cub, grooming each of them for about ten seconds and then moving on. I’ll have to check up on what this means.

All the badgers were feeding constantly, grubbing around in the undergrowth. For the first time I saw theCubs Foraging creation of ‘snuffle holes’ close up. Snuffle holes are classic signs of badger activity. They are conical holes in the earth, anything up to six inches deep, caused by the badger rooting out food. The badgers would push their nose into the soft leaf-mould and dig a little with their claws, and within seconds they had dug a perfect little hole.

It seems that most of these holes were dug in search of worms. At one point the ‘mother’ unearthed a huge worm. As she lifted her head, with the worm dangling like a piece of spaghetti, one of the cubs rushed in, took from her and ate it. She didn’t seem too upset. I’ve seen this before, and I’m not sure whether it is the adult feeding the cubs, or perhaps the adult is teaching them how to find food. Perhaps she was just a little slow and the cub stole her titbit.

There were badgers all around me by this point, and the undergrowth was full of scuffling and scratching. There were badgers in front of me, badgers behind me and badgers on each side. One even tried to climb the tree I was in! I was in the centre of a maelstrom of badgers. An owl hooted in the distance. I looked at my watch – 9.20pm. A new thought struck me. How was I going to get down from my tree? My number one rule of badger watching is ‘Do not disturb the badgers’, yet if I tried to get down I would literally be on top of them. It looked like I was stuck there for the duration.

At that moment a couple of adult badgers by the sett entrance started fighting. This was much different to the usual play-fighting of the cubs; a lot of biting around the neck, accompanied by a constant whickering. At least, I thought they were fighting. Neither seemed in a hurry to get away. When social animals fight, the loser normally backs off quickly. No-one is hurt and the hierarchy is maintained. It occurred to me that these badgers were perhaps not fighting, they were maybe getting amorous with each other.

I’ve never seen badger courtship before, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t look very gentle. This is something else I’ll have to check up on, and see if can find out what they were really doing.

After a while the cubs moved off to the east, and the two fighting/courting adults went back in the sett. I don’t know whether it was a case of ‘not in front of the children’ or whether one of them just wanted some peace. It gave me a chance to get down from the tree and stalk carefully off, relieved at getting away without disturbing them. I’d had a great couple of hours of absolutely pure and undisturbed badger antics – the best you could wish for – and the least I could do was to leave them in peace to carry on with it.

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It’s been a while since I’ve been to the wood, what with work commitments and other matters, so I was keen to see how the cubs were getting on.

The last two weeks have seen a lot of rain, but today was quite sunny. The rain has given us a lot of lush vegetation and the wood is a bit like a rain forest at the moment. The nettles at the gate are now as high as my shoulder!

The badgers emerged en masse at about 7.45pm, and for the next hour so they milled around the area, quite content and relaxed. One of my problems is that as yet I haven’t been able to recognise individual badgers at the sett. I can recognise the cubs – they’re small and cute and fluffy – but the adults are harder to tell apart. This is one of the reasons for taking photographs and video, so that I can try and learn their features and so tell them apart. The other reason for the pictures is to explain to my wife what I do in the evenings…

Anyhow, there were very soon at least ten badgers at the sett entrance, the five cubs and at least five adults. They were all quite happy, enjoying the pleasant evening, sitting around grooming and playing. The older cubs are getting to be quite a handful, but there are two who are still smaller and quieter. Are these females? Do females develop slower? Or are they just late developers?

The cubs are ranging further afield now, and going off foraging on their own. They still stay within about 100 yards of the sett, but they are definitely getting more independent. There is still the usual play-fighting and wrestling going on, but they seem to have calmed down a little and are getting on with the business of finding food. Interestingly, I saw one of the cubs musking another cub, so it seems as if they are already defining relationships in the group.

Musking is an activity that may need some explaining. The badger belongs to the mustelid family, which also includes weasels, stoats, otters, polecats and martens. One of the key features of these animals is that they communicate by scent, having a musk gland under the tail that secretes a powerful-smelling oil. This is used to mark out a territory, and in the case of badgers, to mark out family members.

Badgers mark their territory through the use of specific ‘latrine’ sites or dung pits. These areLatrine Site located at the edge of their patch, and are visited regularly. The scent at these sites warns other badgers out of the area. These dung pits are a useful way to identify the territory of different badgers. You can also use them to find out what the badgers have been eating. I’m not dedicated enough for detailed analysis, but as a rough guide badgers that have been eating their usual diet of earthworms will leave ‘earthy’ dung. In late summer, the dung is often crammed with wheat from the fields, showing the change in diet. There are a few cherry trees in our area, and in the autumn the badger dung is often dark red and a mass of cherry stones.

A badger musks another badger by pressing its backside against it, so that it rubs the musk gland on the other badger. Musking indicates the hierarchy of the group, so that dominant badgers musk the less dominant ones. It marks them out as ‘belonging’ to them. As I was watching the sett there was a disturbance in the undergrowth (caused by one of the cubs, I think). Alarmed, all the badgers bolted back to the sett. It was like a firework exploding in reverse – badgers raced back from all points of the compass. When they had settled down again, one of the adults came over and musked two of the cubs. It was if it was saying ‘Don’t worry, you’re one of us. You’re part of the gang. You’re safe now.’

I’m curious to see what happens to the family. Will all the cubs stay at the sett, or do they go off and make their own way in the world? I guess I need to work on identifying individuals and keep watching over the year to answer that question.

At the end of the evening, one of the cubs started exploring in a whole new direction. There is a tree at the sett that grows at an angle of about 45 degrees. The cub managed to climb onto this tree, and proceeded to amble upwards. Very shortly it had climbed about 25 feet along the tree, and was about 12-14 feet off the ground. I wondered if it would get stuck. We had a cat once that would climb trees, but could only climb upwards. When it came to coming down again she was much less graceful. The badger cub on the other hand seemed quite at home in the tree, and when it reached the end of the trunk it turned round and ambled down again. I’ve seen badgers climbing trees before, and they always seem a bit out of place, being low-slung, solid animals, definitely suited to life on the ground. I suppose they are related to Pine Martens after all, so it may be a family trait.

As it was getting too dark to see, a muntjac barked loudly nearby and all the badgers scrambled down the nearest sett entrance. I took that as my cue and slipped down from my tree and headed home.

Here’s a short video of the badgers at the sett.

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