Most badgers have a characteristic black and white striped face with small white-tipped ears and grey body, though their fur can become stained by the local soil.
The body appears grey, with black fur on its legs. In windy conditions, the fur may blow around in the wind, revealing the lighter underfur on the body. However, the colour of each hair varies on close inspection, and is not always grey. This can give rise to an odd-looking effect where the badger can appear to have stripes on the body when it is windy or when it walks or runs or if it forages in very wet weather. These are not true stripes - this grizzled appearance happens because you see sections of the lighter-coloured underfur.
A few individuals are albino (creamy or off-white), and there are small populations of reddish/ginger (Erythristic) badgers in certain areas of Britain. Albino and Erythristic badgers have a harmless genetic difference to other badgers, but are otherwise exactly the same type of badger. Within the same clan it is fairly common to see mixtures of badgers, some of which seen to be wholly, black/white/grey whereas others seem to have a distinct grey/brown tint.
If you see no more than a very quick glance of an animal which is about the size of a badger and it looks brown it might be a rare Erythristic badger or it could be a more common Muntjac (this is a small russet brown deer which stands roughly 44-52cm at the shoulder). See Muntjac Deer for more pictures.
The adult badger is a stocky animal, being about 750mm in length (from the head to the base of the tail), plus a tail of about 150mm.
These averages cover quite a wide range though.
An adult badger can measure 250 - 300mm high at the shoulder.
The badger has a small head, a thick-set neck, a stocky wedge-shaped body and short tails. The limbs are short and massive - these ending in very powerful feet with leathery pads and strong claws. The claws are not retractable. The front ones continually re-grow, but the back claws can wear down in older badgers.
The weight of an adult badger varies throughout the year - depending on how much fat it has laid down for the winter months. The weight range can vary considerably from one area to another, depending on the food supply and the number of badgers living within the clan and nearby.
A multiple-year study of the high-density badger population at Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire discovered that:
The breeding females lost much more weight than non-breeding females, due to the need to provide milk for their cubs. Importantly though the badgers at Woodchester Park live at very high densities; and this means that they are generally smaller than badgers who live elsewhere at lower densities. Badger which live elsewhere may be about 1kg heavier than this on average. Perhaps the UK average might be:
Occasionally individual specimens do weigh more than this, but these are generally the exception rather than the rule. In rare cases, badgers in the UK have reached weights of 23, 25, 27.3 and 27.7 kg.
Badgers near the West coast of Scotland are typically smaller than the ones on the Eastern side. This is because generally badgers in the west have access to smaller number of the preferred earthworm variety, and this affects their weight.
Urban badgers, with access to good year-round food supplies can gain weight rapidly; and in some locations they hardly seen to have a "slim" period in the winter/spring.
The badger has a massive elongated heavy skull which contains an oval-shaped brain case. They tend to have quite a narrow facial bone structure, although this appears wider due to the prominent jaw muscles. The top of the skull is protected by a sagittal crest - this boney ridge is up to 15mm tall and acts to strengthen the skull to protect the brain casing when digging or when being attacked. The crest develops as the skull grows; and is more prominent in males.
The male badger often has a slightly broader and slightly more domed head and looks a little more muscular than the female. Males tend to have a shorter blunt-looking muzzle too. Note that, when watching badgers at night, it is almost impossible to tell males from females, just by looking at the head.
Females have a short bushy tail which is more rounded with less white on the top; whereas the males tend to have a thinner, whiter and more pointed tail.
Compared to females, sometimes males exhibit tails which are almost embarrassingly thin and threadbare.
Teeth and Jaw
Badgers have prominent teeth which are strongly suited to their omnivorous diet. Like many mustelids, they have small chisel-shaped incisors, prominent canines and non-specialized carnassials/pre-molars. Their molar teeth at the back of the mouth are more flattened and heavily adapted to grinding food.
The upper canines tend to be very slightly longer in males than in females. It is important to realise that the combination of larger overall size, taller domed head, wider face and longer upper canines SUGGESTS it is a male; rather this being a certain indicator.
The badger has a very unusual jaw structure. The mandible (jawbone) is connected to a cavity in the skull, which means that the jaw is very difficult to dislocate. This gives the badger an extremely strong bite, but this does mean that movement of the jaw is restricted. It can open and close the jaw like a hinge. but it does not have the ability to twist its jaw like most other mammals can. The fact that the jaw is locked into the skull means that if (in the UK) you find a skull where the jaw can not be removed; this probably identifies it as a badger.
Males or Females
When male and female animal species look different, this is known as sexual dimorphism. Using this to determine the gender of a badger is difficult because there is relatively little obvious sexual dimorphism in badgers. To most people, the males and females look very similar.
Many people have tried to work out schemes to identify whether a badger is a male (boar) or a female (sow). At the risk of being slightly flippant; the best way is just to roll it over and have a good look underneath to see whether it has any obvious male (testes) or female (teats) bits and pieces. Note that the teats (three pairs of two teats) are usually pretty obvious in lactating sows (there may be a missing circle of fur around them). The male testes are less obvious; as they retract to conserve heat in winter. The testes may be more prominent in the few days when males are trying to mate with females in February to May; and July to September.
Otherwise, as a general rule; males will have thin tails; and females much wider fluffier tails. When watching a group of badgers it is worth paying the tails a lot of attention; as the tails can be a great help to identify both the gender and individual badgers.
Determining the age of a badger with any degree of accuracy is difficult in the wild, when you have only your own eyes or a camera or binoculars to help. Many of the signs of aging can not readily be seen, unless you have close access to a sedated badger.
In terms of how to "age" a badger; the skull stops growing in the third year; so looking at (or measuring) the size of the skull is a less reliable guide to age after three years of age.
Some scientists have suggested that examining the teeth is useful; as you can assess them in a similar way to how tree scientists count tree rings. This method does not give reliable results when looked at over widely seperated areas of the country though; as the growth of the teeth is not consistent between badgers in different areas.
The other method is to look at the general state of repair of the teeth. Badgers eat a lot of earthworms and these contain a lot of soil; and this can cause teeth to wear away; and high sugar levels can cause the teeth to rot and go black. A badger with teeth which are worn down to rotten blackened stumps is likely to be more than 10 years old. Very badly worn or rotten teeth will adversely affect its ability to feed.
You can tell by its appearance that the badger is a digger.
The body is wedge-shaped and is carried on short but immensely strong legs - excellent for working in confined spaces. The muscles of the forelimbs and neck are particularly well developed. Digging is targeted at enlarging and improving its sett (this consists of several chambers where the badger sleeps and breeds).
When enlarging a tunnel a badger will loosen the earth with rapid strokes of its forelimbs, and then use its claws as rakes.
Earth and stones may be ejected forcefully from the exit hole of a sett when a badger is digging! Indeed some of these stones may be quite large; and there may even be claw marks apparent on the surface of softer stones, such as some sandstones and chalks.
The badger is not designed to chase prey. It tends to hold it's spine pretty flat, so it is not as flexible as other species such as cats. It can not arch it's back like a cat can. In extreme cases it can gallop at up to 30km/hour (20 mph) for short distances; but it is not a species designed to run fast or for long distances. Its main type of movement is by ambling along slowly looking and sniffing for food, or by walking with a rolling bouncy trot. Many people find the badger quite comical when they see it walk; as it often seems to both roll and bounce along. With a flat back and fast moving legs the badger can appear to move along almost as though it is gliding.
Whilst the badger can use powerful claws to climb well; it is not an animal which can jump very high. Cats, foxes, deer and most medium to large sized dogs can jump much better than a badger.
The badger is also a very tidy animal and spends a lot of time transporting grass, straw, moss or bracken to and from its sleeping chamber deep in the sett. Badgers can be very particular in the type of bedding material they gather. There are often examples of badgers having gathered bedding materials from over 100 metres away; when other materials were available nearby. They seem to know how and where to find the best bedding materials, rather than just the closest.
Setts are handed down like family houses from generation to generation, and the badger uses the same sett year after year. It would seem likely that the ability to gather bedding materials for the sett is learned behaviour, with animals folowing well-marked badger paths to gather the most useful materials.
The method of transporting bedding is to scrape together a pile of bedding. The badger will then pull the bedding into a roll and place this under the body between the front and back legs. It will then walk backwards, dragging the roll along with the long front claws. This can be quite comical to watch, but it seems like quite an efficient way to transfer materials back to the sett.
If you come close to a badger in good light, you will see that it has whiskers on its face. These whiskers are quite stiff and stick up above each eye, and outwards from the sides of the snout. The whiskers have very sensitive nerve endings and are used to allow the badger to feel its way into tight spaces. It knows whether it can get its body through a small space by seeing if its whiskers bend when it tries to go through a small gap. Whiskers used in this way are technically called vibrissae and are common in many animals such as cats, dormice and so on.