Winter White Russian Hamsters
Author: David Baglinan orphaned article, provenance forgotten.
The winter white Russian hamster, Latin name Phodopus Sungoris, really is a friendly, charming and cheeky little fellow. Seldom are they found to bite and they look so cute, especially the more portly, chubby ones. Which is why they are my favourite species of dwarf hamster currently available on the pet market.
A small group of winter whites or Siberian hamsters as they are often referred to, was trapped near Ormsk in Siberia in the late 1960s. These were taken to a Russian university to be studied and bred. A few years later, some of the descendants of these were taken to a university in Germany. In the mid 1970s St Mary's University imported some into the United Kingdom and from there they found their way into the hamster fancy in 1977/78.
Wild Habitat And Feeding
In the wild, the winter white Russian hamster is found in the arid steppe lands, semi desert mountain foot hills and grass lands of Russia, northern China and Kazakhstan. During the day, depending on the season the temperatures where these hamsters live, can vary between cold, moderately warm to unbearably hot. At night, it can fall to several degrees below zero. A hamster's home should be able to keep the little animal cool enough during the day and warm enough at night. Winter whites usually take over the old burrows of other rodents living in the vicinity and excavate them to suit their needs. Usually each animal has its own burrow, or one it shares with a mate, which can have long tunnels up to 8 feet long and different chambers for different uses. One or more for sleeping, one as a toilet area and one or more for food storage. The nest chambers are lined with soft dry grasses and sometimes sheep's wool, which can be found caught on grass and bushes during foraging expeditions. Sometimes the territories of two or more individuals can overlap slightly with their homes adjacent to each other giving the impression of a large colony.
Because hamsters are more active at dusk, dawn and during the night, when temperatures can fall dramatically, the dwarf species need to have a thick warm coat. In the wild the colour is usually a grey-brown with a lighter underside which is good camouflage against rocky outcrops and fairly barren brownish grasslands. In the winter when there is snow, due to shortened daylight hours the winter white will turn a greyish-white to pure white colour. That is why they are commonly known as winter whites in the UK. Night time is when they go out foraging for food, which consists of different kinds of grasses and grass seeds, other seeds and small insects. They have even been known to forage around dry sheep and goat dung for undigested seeds within.
Breeding And Family Life
In the wild, hamsters are seasonal breeders, pairing up with a mate in early spring and producing litters throughout spring and summer and then stopping during late autumn and winter. If several females live close to each other, male winter whites may bond and mate with each one, spending time alternately between his wives. Unfortunately due to their small size, dwarf hamsters are prey for many species that live in the same habitat especially foxes, wild cats, stoats, weasels and all sizes of birds of prey. So it is vital that they produce as many babies as possible during the breeding season. Female winter whites come into season as soon as their litters are born. This is called Post Partum Oestrus. Babies not only need food to develop but also warmth, which they get from their mothers and also their fathers within a few days of birth. If the litter that is born is slow to develop, the female winter white can delay giving birth or even delay becoming pregnant after mating if conditions are not ideal by several days to over a week. Thus giving the older litter a better chance. The young are born pink and naked, blind and deaf. In the wild they may have 3-5 babies. In captivity, 5-9 is not unheard of on a regular basis. Newborns are completely dependent on their mother, especially for warmth for the first 10 or so days. The skin pigments to a dark grey within a few days. Soft downy fur then appears a few days later. By now the ear-flaps are opening and the young can hear. The young are fully furred by about 7 days and can regulate their own body temperature better a few days later. They still however, depend on warmth offered by their parents. At around 12-14 days their eyes open and the little fellows start to explore the nest area. By now they are taking small amounts of solid food. A week later the little winter whites are fully weaned and totally independent. All being well the mother is likely to be about to produce another litter. At the moment there is nothing documented on what happens between three weeks of age in the wild and sexual maturity. Any one who breeds this species will know how vulnerable and tiny, newly weaned winter whites are. In captivity the parents will frequently not tolerate the older litter once a new family comes along. Some parents are more tolerant than others so it depends on the individual pair. Once the mother has settled in with her new litter (usually the babies are 3-7 days old) she may start to harass the older ones and drive them to a different nest chamber or out into burrows of their own. By 12 weeks of age, winter whites are sexually mature and by now will have found their own territories and will be seeking mates of their own.
Similarities To Campbell's Russian Hamsters
The winter white Russian hamster bears some physical and behavioural similarities to the Campbell's Russian.. They are a similar size and colouring although Campbell's are more brownish than greyish in colour, both having a dark dorsal stripe running from head to toe. Winter whites have a more roman nose. Both are rounded and solid in body shape. They are from the same family and are sub species of each other. In the wild the two different types may have overlapping territories as they are found in similar habitats but do not interbreed. When kept together in captivity, they will. Hybrid offspring of the two species are known to have reduced or no fertility. It is not at all wise to try and breed these hybrids. Male Campbell's are particularly devoted husbands and fathers bringing food to their wives when they have young litters under them. They are believed to be slightly more sociable and live in small family units including young adults as well as the dominant breeding pair.
My Experiences Of Keeping Winter Whites In Captivity
Accommodation, Colony Sizes, Temperament And Aggression
I have been keeping winter whites for around 10 years now. I have found that they really do not do well in crowded conditions. They like company and do best in pairs. Single sex small groups can work but be prepared for bullying. This is common in both, all-male groups or all-female groups. If you have large cages or tanks and want to try colonies, then groups of 3 and 4 individuals are usually most harmonious, but I have kept groups of up to 6 fairly successfully. It really depends on the temperaments of the individual animals. Adult females in colony situations are usually the most aggressive but dominant males can be equally as evil. I have tried keeping winter whites in mixed colonies but found there to be too much bullying, shrieking and mortality. I have not kept mixed sex colonies for about 4 years. If there is friction in a winter white cage, you will know about it, bullying and bullied individuals let out high-pitched screams. This may also happen when a pair is put into a show pen and are too close to each other for comfort. When I first started keeping winter whites I had a problem and had to remove my very happily paired up couple from their tank into a bucket, temporarily for a few days. The female attacked the male so badly that he was bald underneath and severely scarred permanently. She almost castrated him. I housed them separately for several months then tried them together in a large cage. They instantly remembered their old love for each other and settled down happily without a peep for the rest of their lives. They really are space-loving creatures. My pairs live in Geo Flat boxes approximately 38cm x 23cm or slightly larger plastic tanks. 3s and 4s live in the tanks that are about 46cm x 25cm and 5s and 6s live in the large Geo Flat boxes which are about 42cm x 24cm. Silence in the hamster room proves you have struck a good balance and there is a happy atmosphere.
I breed normal (agouti grey-brown), sapphire (smokey blue grey) and pearl (white with black eyes and black or blue grey ticking) winter whites. I usually try and pure breed wherever possible as I get the best results for showing with regard to colour this way. I have not paired pearl to pearl before as only recently have my males been proven to be fertile. In the past my pure normal males have been mated with normal pearl females, giving dark normals and good pearls. Sapphire males with sapphire pearl females have produced nice sapphires and sapphire pearls.
I mainly feed a large scoop of good quality dry food once or twice a week depending on the quantity in the cage and their needs. Mothers with litters get top ups every other day. I try and give carrot every week. Occasionally they all get some kind of leafy green vegetables, a blob of soaked puppy food or a small pot of porridge. The porridge and puppy food contains a lot of calories and can make adults obese so this is usually limited to those tanks that are not feeding litters, but it is given frequently to mums with young and growing babies
I usually have 4-8 breeding pairs at one time. If I decide to keep from certain pairs I can separate say two normal males from one litter and a sapphire and pearl male from a different litter (of a similar age to the normals) and run the four together in large tank or plastic box. That way I know which lads came from which pair and are more easily identifiable. Bachelor males can be kept for showing for a year or more, then be paired to females when required, whereas females must be paired up by six months to try and guarantee a litter or two whilst they are still fertile. I normally separate two females together from their parents and run them on together until about 4 or 5 months before pairing each one with an individual male
I had a couple of trios a few years ago which was fairly successful initially. I paired two 6 week old brothers with an unrelated 6 week old female. The female started to breed but by the second or third litter I found that the more dominant brother (and the one that mated with the female) really began to bully his bother, inflicting serious injury on him. I then had to split them. I tried the trio experiment with two brothers aged 16 weeks and a female of a similar age. Within 48 hours unknown to me the dominant male inflicted such severe wounds on his sibling that the submissive male actually died. I have decided to no longer experiment like this and always stick to pair breeding.
My Groups Of Winter Whites
When space allows, I try to only allow my females to have 3 litters in a row, as they become so thin after weaning each batch of babies. I try and make it that a new female of 15 to 22 weeks is available to go with a male who has just sired a second litter. (By now his original female will be pregnant with litter no 3). This is why I currently have over 40 cages of winter whites. I have my breeding pairs and my retired pairs whose breeding has stopped now. There are my single sex groups of un-mated animals, my oldies whose mates have died and wont live with anyone else and then my odd ones who maybe got picked on and are waiting for a suitable mate of the opposite sex or were individual females who I want to show for a while before I pair up to start breeding. I sometimes have running on boxes of babies aged 4-8 weeks old that are waiting to be sold.
Winter Whites At Shows Abroad
I have been lucky enough to be invited to judge at hamster shows in Finland and Sweden. The standard of their show animals is particularly high there. Their normals are considerably darker, in general than ours. They also concentrate on type more than British breeders and have fantastic show lines. I am not sure why, but after the arrival of the sapphire and the pearl in the late eighties or early nineties our normals really lost colour. It was beneficial to the new mutations to cross to normal, but it really affected the colour of the exhibition show normals They really lost depth and ticking over the last 6 years or so. With limited stock I tried to pure breed where possible but was not able to get the results of the Scandinavians. Myself and a few other breeders were able to import some good stock under the Balai Agreement (which avoids the need for quarantine) from friends in Scandinavia and I am pleased to say that this has injected some outstanding quality animals into our homes and onto the show bench. A quantity of wild normals had been caught in the mid nineties and found their way to some Dutch breeders who in turn sold their offspring to Swedish and Finnish exhibitors thus improving the colour of their normals. The combination of selectively bred show lines for type and pure wild depth of colour mixed well and has given some outstanding Scandinavian champions.