Common Hamster

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The common hamster was once widespread from Belgium across central Europe to the Soviet Union. Although its numbers have been reduced, it is still found on plains and in pastures. Related to the golden hamster which is often kept as a pet, the common hamster is a truly wild mammal. Its legs are so short that its furry body almost touches the ground as it scurries around its grassy habitat searching for food.

Habits: The hamster prefers dry, sandy soil where it can dig its underground burrows and runways easily. It inhabits all types of grassy and cultivated land. It can also be found on lowland hills up to an altitude of 2,00 feet. The hamster lives in a burrow year round, digging different burrows according to season. Its burrow can be extensive Ė the size depends on the age of the animal. In some areas where the soil and vegetation are suitable, many burrows may be crowded into one small area. The common hamster lives near rivers, and in fields, pastures, and scrubland.
In the winter, the hamster withdraws to its burrow and closes up the entrances with soil. It hibernates in the burrow in a grass-lined nest. Although its body temperature drops from 90 degrees to 39 degrees, it is not a true hibernator because it does not survive off its fat, but wakes every 5-7 days to feed from the stored food supply.

Food and Feeding: The common hamster feeds mainly at night on plant matter including grass, clover, beans, lentils, grains, flowers, seeds, rooted vegetables, and the green parts of plants. It will also eat insects, lizards, frogs, small birds, field mice, and its favorite Ė earthworms. If a number of hamsters inhabit the same area, food shortages can force the population to find new feeding grounds. During such a journey, the hamster may swim across large rivers.

Toward the end of fall, the hamster collects food to store for the coming winter. It carries rooted vegetables between its front teeth and fills its cheek pouches full of beans and other seeds with its extremely coordinated front paws. Once it is in the burrow, it uses its paws to squeeze its cheeks to empty the food into a chamber which it has specially excavated for the purpose. Largely plant eating, the hamster will also eat small mammals, insects, and lizards.

Common Hamster and Man: Over much of its range, the common hamster is numerous and is considered a pest because it digs up rooted vegetables and eats grass, clover, and bean crops. It destroys wheat plants while attempting to get to the grains at the top of the stalks. Still, modern agricultural methods have led to a heavy decline in its numbers, particularly in central Europe. Over the years, it has also been hunted and trapped for its fur. When threatened, the common hamster can become very fierce, and has been known to attack both dogs and humans.

Breeding: Common hamsters breed throughout late spring and summer. During this time, they produce a number of litters. The males move into the femalesí burrows while breeding, but are quickly driven out after mating. After an 18-20 day gestation period, 4-12 blind and naked young are born in a nest chamber within the burrow. They weigh only a half ounce at birth, but within a week, even though their eyes are still closed, they will begin to nibble at grass. Their eyes open after 2 weeks, by which time they have grown a thick coat of fur. They are completely weaned at 3 weeks. The female is extremely protective of her young. If they are threatened, she gathers them into her mouth, either by putting them into her cheek pouches or laying them across the toothless area between the incisors and molars.

Key Facts:
Length: 8-14 in. Tail: 1-2 in.
Weight: 4-32 oz.

Sexual maturity: Females are receptive at 43 days old
Breeding season: Early April-August
Gestation: 18-20 days
No. of Young: 4-12
Weaning period: 3 weeks

Habit: Solitary, lives in complex system of burrows
Diet: Feeds mainly on grasses, seeds, grain, legume crops, and root vegetables
Lifespan: 2 years

Related species: There are 24 species of hamster grouped in 5 genera. The common hamster is the only species in its genus.
Distribution: Originally only in eastern Europe and western Asia, the common hamster penetrated west to Belgium and east into the Soviet Union with the spread of agriculture.
Conservation: Numbers have been reduced through modern farming methods, but as it can live in semi-arid habitats and has a high reproduction rate, the species is not endangered.

The Common Hamsterís Burrows:
Fur: Reddish colored with black underbelly and black and white bands on shoulders.
Pouches: Filled with food to take to its burrow for storage.
Paws: Very coordinated front paws.
Tunnel entrance: Usually 6-8 entrances leading to chambers.
Food chamber: Winter stores kept in several chambers.
Chambers: For sleeping, eating and storing food.

Did You Know:
When packed full of food, the common hamsterís cheek pouches can extend back beyond its shoulder blades.
Hamsters are good swimmers and it is thought they achieve buoyancy by inflating their cheek pouches with air.
The common hamster belongs to the largest mammalian group, consisting of over a thousand species. The group includes rats, mice, voles, lemmings, and gerbils.
One hamsterís winter burrow was found to contain 200 pounds of seeds, legumes, and rooted vegetables