The Behaviours of Shaw's Jirds
The Shaw's Jird exhibits several forms of distinct behaviour, and it's worth getting acquainted with them to better understand your jirds actions. As mentioned in the breeding section Shaw's jirds are not as sociable as the Mongolian gerbil and at times can behave very aggressive to one another. This is mainly due to the dominant and territorial nature of the female Shaw's Jird. Also this is one of the main reasons why many breeders generally do not recommend female pairs as pets (a single female or a pair of males are fine) Even female littermates will bicker and exhibit aggressive behaviour at the onset of maturity. However they are usually very docile towards humans, and can become unbelievably tame with frequent handling. From a human point of view they are much easier to handle than their smaller Mongolian cousins are, and often a tame Jird is happy to sit happily in your lap vibrating (the equivalent to a cat purring)
The Shaw's Jird isn't a strictly nocturnal animal, and can often be seen out of their nest box several times during the day, interspersed with periods of short naps. They have a keen sense of smell, acute hearing and good eyesight. They also instinctively hoard and bury their food and have no problems whatsoever relocating it.
Generally they tend to have good parenting skills. I have noticed that with the males of TheU.K. Shaw's Jird variants, when once allowed back into the nest box will happily groom the pups and keep them warm while the female goes off for a feed and a sleep elsewhere in the tank. Males often get kicked out for several days by the female, usually on or the day after the females give birth, and some males can get kicked out permanently! The female is very protective; often the mum will still be grabbing stray pups and returning them to the nest well after the three-week mark. It's worth noting that during the first week after the female gives birth her character may change somewhat and she can be very overprotective and often nip an exploring human finger in the nest box or near her pups. This behaviour is probably due to increased hormonal activity within the female's body, her behaviour gradually returns to normal as the pups get older. The male too has a peak period of hormone production, this occurs on or around the 12 month mark. This can affect the male to several degrees. Females in this state tend to be aggressive to other Jirds, where as the male can be aggressive to anything that moves. Usually there are warning signs, the male puffing its fur out similar to a cat before they go in for the kill. As the male's hormone levels decline, so the male Jird will return to his former self. There is no specific length of time that he has raised hormone levels, and this condition may last a few weeks or several months. This period can also be very variable, some males never get aggressive at all, and some may just behave in a territorial manner, where as others may become prone to biting. However after saying this most Jirds are completely affectionate to their human keepers.
The young Shaw's Jird exhibits individual behaviour at a very early age, sometimes from three weeks onwards. Some patterns of behaviour are innate, others are learnt from their parents. It's often fun to watch how quick young Jirds will pick up on shredding bedding and adding it to the nest. In many ways young Jird pups will emulate their parents. If the parents use a wheel, often the young pups can pick up the habit as young as three weeks.
When the young Jird first ventures out of its nest box it behaves very cautiously, and the slightest sound or quick movement will send it scurrying back to the safety of its nest box and parents. As the Jird matures the trips out of the nest box get progressively longer, and they mark the beginning of independence for the young Jird. This is roughly about the same time as the female loses interest in her now grown up pups.
Exhibiting digging behaviour is natural for jirds, but excessive, pointless digging in the corner of the aquarium, is a form of stereotypical behaviour (see nest box section). Steps should be taken to reduce this type of activity, this can be done quite easily, also make sure they have enough material for chewing, toys such as a wheel, and most important, play time out of the tank.
Shaw's jirds are very similar to other gerbil species when communicating. Vocalisation in the form of high pitched squeaks can be heard in many different situations, which can signal that either young jirds are playing, want feeding or used during bouts of aggression or even through fear. The Jird also effectively communicates by using the hind legs to drum. There isn't a fixed rhythm; it can range from a slow clearly audible foot tap, to a much faster rhythm similar to a drum roll. Depending on the tempo these signals seem to be messages to other Jirds, either a warning of imminent danger, a greeting call or to attract a mate, or warnings to other Jirds entering another Jirds territory.
Another behavioural habit that can be seen is scent marking, especially with adult males. Jirds have a scent gland on their bellies. This looks like an oval bald patch of skin on the ventral line of their bellies. It is often stained yellow in mature Jirds. The jirds can often be seen rubbing their bellies on just about everything, on the bottom of their tank, on toys, the nest box and at times even your hand! This is basically territory-marking behaviour. Males can often be seen doing this. Females in comparison scent mark much less than the males, usually the main objects of her scenting activities are her pups, or to mark a buried stash of food.
The Shaw's Jird is an exceptionally clean rodent. It will never foul its own nest and because it efficiently uses its water supply, their living quarters rarely smell. They groom themselves and each other several times a day, using their forepaws and their tongue to clean and wash their face, ears, head, tail, and body. When adults take time out to groom each other it's often an extension of the act of bonding. Grooming also helps to stimulate their fur and prevents it from becoming matted. If accompanied by a sand bath their fur will always look shiny, clean, and healthy.
Jirds very much appreciate playtime out of their tank but need vigilant supervision. By nature they are fearless daredevils, this fact coupled with good agility can often get them into scrapes if not fully supervised. Their nails are long and sharp, which enables them to grip and climb virtually any surface with relative ease. They also seem to have little fear of heights. Their jumping ability is equally as good, and some Jirds can easily jump from a sitting position to the full height of 15 to 18 inch high glass aquariums.
Shaw's jirds exhibit similar postures to their Mongolian gerbil cousins. They will sit semi-upright in a squatting position when eating and often stand upright on their hind legs similar to a Meerkat when surveying their tank landscape. It is their tails that help them balance when standing, sitting, jumping, and climbing.