Usually referred to as a gerbil, the jird is a little creature of North African descent. Most jirds belong to the genus Meriones. Therefore, to be accurate, the gerbil most commonly kept as a pet, the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), is actually a jird.
The term jird is an Arabic word meaning large desert rodent. There are currently 14 different species of jirds but only a few are typically kept as pets. The Shaw’s jird is the most popular followed by the Sundevall jird and Libyan jird.
Larger than the typically gerbil, these animated relatives of hamsters, kangaroo rats and lemmings seem to enjoy performing. Best kept in pairs, they will groom each other, burrow together and sleep cuddled together. When excited they will get up on their hind legs, balance on their long tufted tails and thump their feet. When pleased they will let out tiny barely audible squeals.
Good jird housing provides them with the space and means to pursue their most basic urge: burrowing. They do this with abandon, digging with their front feet and then kicking out what they’ve just dug with their back feet. A cage is fine as long as you don’t mind debris flying through the bars. A box is fine, but it keeps you from appreciating the performance. Best then is an aquarium, at least 10 inches high by 18 inches long by 10 inches wide. Fit it tightly with a mesh top – jirds are big hoppers – and cover the bottom with a 6- to 8-inch deep layer of burrowing material. This can be a combination of straw and peat or soft sawdust or wood shavings. Provide a couple of jird-sized tubes of pvc piping for them to dive in and out of, and a drip water bottle (they’ll turn over any bowl) and that’s pretty much it.
Cleanliness (odorlessness) is another distinction that makes jirds so popular. Clean out the aquarium every 6 to 8 weeks. If you have a cage with a litter tray, clean out the tray once a month.
As with housing, feeding jirds is fairly straightforward. Feed grain and seeds supplemented with pelleted food. To keep your pet trim, use fatty sunflower seeds and peanuts only as a treat. Feed the jirds only what they’ll eat at the time, although this can be difficult to ascertain since they will take much of their food and bury it around the cage. Jirds enjoy fruits and vegetables: try pears, apples, carrots and lettuce. And supply some untreated wood for them to chew.
When you bring your jirds home, allow them a few days to themselves in their new accommodations. Then, beginning once, maybe twice a day, take them out and handle them gently to allow them to get used to you. Soon their own curiosity will bring them out.