The people in Villa Park put up with the strange animal in their toolshed for about as long as they could. They didn’t know exactly what it was, but they knew that anytime they opened the door of the shed, they heard nasty growls and hissing noises. And the smell, a powerful musky odor, was enough to drive you off all by itself. They had reason to believe that the animal, whatever it was, had raised a litter of young in the toolshed.

When they had finally had enough, they called the animal-control people to come and get whatever this nuisance was. The call led directly to the involvement of the Illinois Department of Conservation, because the surly, smelly animal was a badger, and having a badger in your backyard is a sort of distinction.

Of course, you might react like the man who was being tarred, feathered, and run out of town and say, “If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon forget it.” But most Illinoisans go through their entire lives without seeing a real wild badger, so the honor of having one living in your backyard is not something you can dismiss lightly.

You could describe a badger as a sort of king-size skunk with an attitude problem. A big male badger may reach a weight of 25 pounds, although most are smaller than that. They look even bigger, because their skin is very loose and their fur is very shaggy. Their odor is from a musk that they exude from special glands, but they cannot spray as skunks can.

Their faces are patterned in black and white. Inexperienced people might confuse a badger with a raccoon or a skunk. The facial patterns are not alike–but if you came upon a snarling, hissing animal in your toolshed along about twilight, you might not hang around long enough to pick up the fine points of the field marks.

Accurate badger sightings are the concern of Richard Warner of the Center for Wildlife Ecology of the Illinois Natural History Survey. At the request of the Illinois Department of Conservation, he is directing a survey of the badgers of Illinois: How many of them are there? Where do they live? And how do they live?

American badgers are grassland animals. Their natural range extends only as far east as Ohio, and the center of their abundance–now as in the past–is west of the Mississippi. Badgers are thoroughly fossorial animals, which means that they dig. They live in holes in the ground, and they hunt mainly by digging into the burrows of ground squirrels, gophers, and the other small burrowing animals that make up most of their diet.

Badgers are nicely shaped for this kind of life. Their heads and bodies are broad and flattened. The look from head-on is elliptical. This elliptical shape is one of the field marks that set a badger burrow apart from holes dug by other burrowing animals.

Badgers have short, powerful, bowed front legs and enormous front feet tipped by stout claws that average about two inches long. This combination is their digging apparatus. In actual field tests–which I would have loved to see–badgers were able to dig faster than a man with a shovel. There is one recorded case of a badger digging an exit to its burrow and coming up through an asphalt highway.

One investigator tried to keep a badger in her basement, but the animal was able to dig through the concrete floor. Its technique for doing this was carefully worked out and not just the application of brute force. The badger found a small crack in the floor and carefully dug at it until small bits of concrete began to flake off. It widened and deepened the crack one small piece at a time until it was able to get its front claws through the crack and under the concrete. Then it pulled up, breaking off piece after piece until the hole was big enough to squeeze into.

Hunting badgers search for the holes of gophers, ground squirrels, and such, and then rapidly dig to enlarge the burrow to a size they can get into. If the gophers have a back door on their burrows, they may get out before a digging badger can get to them. According to various old stories, coyotes sometimes follow badgers around and snatch up escaping gophers for their own dinners. This led to stories that coyotes and badgers hunted together cooperatively, but the truth seems to be that the badgers cooperate with the coyotes, but the coyotes do not cooperate with the badgers.

There are lots of stories about the pugnacity of badgers. A farmer in Illinois’ Vermilion County recently spotted a couple of badger burrows along a roadside. He went home and got his kids to show them this wonder of nature. When they got back to the burrows, he knelt down to look in one and was suddenly face to face with a growling, hissing, grunting badger seemingly intent on biting his nose off.

In Mason County, which is along the Illinois River south of Peoria, the local sheriff told Richard Warner of a badger that had successfully stopped traffic in both directions on a state highway. The animal was in the middle of the road, and anytime a car tried to go around him in either direction, he would charge right at it.

A lot of this ferocity seems to be bluffing, although most people don’t stay around long enough to find out if a charge is for real. Richard Warner raised a young badger this past summer. Its mother and all its littermates had been run over on the highway, so he took it in. From a very early age, it reacted to people with growls and hisses, but Warner’s children stuck their fingers into its cage and never got bit.

Badgers were probably common animals in presettlement Illinois. The prairie is their home, and it is unlikely that you would ever see one in the woods. Most likely they were common until after World War II. The prairies were gone by then, but there were a lot of cow pastures and hay fields that would have been good places for them.

In the late 40s and through the 50s most of our man-made grasslands were converted to corn and soybean fields, and badger numbers began to decline. This was also a bad time for our grassland birds.

There was a year-round open season on badgers for a time. People who raised cattle and horses hated them because their animals sometimes broke a leg stepping in a badger burrow. Trappers took a certain number, although there was not much demand for badger fur. Badger hair is used to make high-quality paintbrushes, but otherwise the pelts are not especially valuable.

An apparent decline in badger numbers led to regulations outlawing trapping or hunting them, but the evidence for the decline was largely anecdotal. The Department of Conservation recently decided that harder evidence was needed on the status of badgers in Illinois, so they hired Warner to check into it.

He and his assistant Barbara Broussard have been collecting information for a little more than a year now. They have reliable reports of badger sightings in 80 of Illinois’ 102 counties. The sightings range from the southern tip of the state to the Wisconsin border, with the biggest numbers in the west-central and northwest counties. (I should explain here that Wisconsin is the Badger State not because of the animal but because of some early settlers. These Cornish miners came in to work lead mines in the southwestern corner of the state. Not only did they spend their days digging in the mines, but they also dug their houses into the sides of the hills.)

Mason County is a particularly good spot in Illinois for badgers. It has very sandy soil–which makes for good digging–and it also has more prairie and savanna landscape than any other Illinois county. The DOC owns a 1,500-acre scrub-oak and prairie preserve there where badgers can be found regularly. There are also badgers at the Nashusa Grasslands, the large preserve near Dixon that is owned by the Nature Conservancy. The animals are strictly nocturnal, and are therefore rarely seen, but their burrows are distinctive. In addition to the elliptical shape, you can look for bones and fur of their prey scattered near the entrance.

In northeastern Illinois, in addition to the Villa Park animal, there have been recent sightings in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Stickney (at Oak Park Avenue and 42nd Street) and in Lake County near Lincolnshire. There is also a population in Chain o’ Lakes State Park.

Illinois badgers move around a lot. Warner has tracked–with radio–one animal that moved ten miles from the location where it had originally been found. Warner thinks that mobility is typical of badgers, but the circumstances in Illinois have probably made movement more necessary than ever. With their habitat fragmented into scattered islands, badgers have to move often in order to find enough food to sustain themselves. Badgers would be among the animals that would be well served by larger preserves.

They also make great use of corridors of seminatural land, such as railroad rights-of-way, hedgerows, and stream banks. These corridors are their first choice as ways to move from one feeding ground to another. The house in Villa Park had a railroad embankment right behind it, and the day after the animal was driven from the toolshed, a German shepherd had a brief run-in with a badger a few miles farther down the embankment. Corridors connecting natural areas have long been recognized as important for conservation.

Warner is anxious to get reports of reliable badger sightings. If you think you have seen one, you can call him at 217-333-5199.