The Owls and the Badger

With the amount of time I spend in the field each year, I get to photograph some truly remarkable scenes. 2014 didn’t disappoint. It was a year filled with unforgettable sights and sounds in the wildest of places.

With all the fantastic things I witnessed in 2014, my favorite memory belongs to an hour I spent alone on the prairie with two little owls and a badger.

On May 19, 2014, at 6:18 in the evening, I was in the middle of a Black-tailed Prairie dog town near the South Dakota Badlands. I was there lying flat on my stomach, photographing a pair of Burrowing owls as they fed on the large insects which are ever-present on the prairie. As the owls floated from place to place among the burrows catching the occasional grasshopper or moth, I noticed a movement further out in the dog town. It was a low, scuttling motion. Even at a distance I could tell it was an American badger.

Badgers are almost as ubiquitous in prairie dog towns as coyotes are, and nothing I know of can dig as efficiently.  There is no wasted motion as the pile of once concrete-hard soil grows behind them. They can disappear from view in moments. All that digging isn’t for fun — they are predators, and will eat just about anything that they can unearth. They are also beautiful creatures perfectly adapted to their environment. I will always watch them when I can.

As enamored as I was of the badger, the owls were much less so. When they spotted  the badger approaching, they launched an all out aerial assault on the big, bad weasel that lasted precisely 57 minutes. Certainly, the owls had a nest nearby, but I do not know where it was. I only know that a wild parent defending it’s young is formidable, no matter the size.

The unfolding scene was something I’ve never witnessed, nor even heard about before. You might expect the owls to make feinting dives at the badger, but these fearless little owls repeatedly hit the badger using their needle-sharp talons to strike with as much force as they could generate. It was a vicious thing to witness, and it certainly looked painful to me.

The badger, however, was unimpressed. In fact, as I photographed and filmed the conflict,  I can’t say I ever saw the badger react at all. From my perspective it looked as though the badger was unaware of the attack, or at least totally unconcerned. Occasionally the badger would shuffle along a bit quicker, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the owls. It didn’t turn to engage the birds. It didn’t snap at them or duck the impacts. Mostly the badger just continued to meander from burrow to burrow, intent on finding a meal which might be anything from prairie dog pups to Burrowing owl eggs.

The owls were determined to make sure eggs were not on the menu. They never tired, never paused. One or both would scream and dive and dive and scream – tenacity and bravery on the wing.

Clicking on the thumbnails below will open a larger version of the image. Clicking HERE will take you to the full gallery with additional images.

Part way through the one-sided attack a coyote wandered by. Undoubtedly attracted by the loud protestations of the owls as they frantically tried to be rid of the badger, the coyote stopped for a time to watch what I was watching. The two of us, the coyote and I, along with several nervous prairie dogs were the only witnesses to the life & death struggle of two little birds, their unseen nest, and the badger. Eventually the coyote walked away, leaving me and the prairie dogs, along with a thoroughly disinterested pair of Bison to watch the curtain close.

As the light waned, the badger eventually found something of interest to dig for. After a very few minutes of enthusiastic excavation he disappeared underground. It was 7:15 p.m.

The owls went back to their insect hunt, satisfied the threat was gone. I stayed until it was nearly dark and didn’t see the badger again.

The owls were there the next morning, feeding on the large insects which are ever-present on the prairie.

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