“Parrots need between 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night!” How often have you heard this? In researching this subject, I found this statement repeated ad infinitum on a great many websites with the exact wording I have copied here.
Questioning Standard Dogma
I question the validity of this statement. First, it is a rather broad generalization to apply to such a diverse group of species. Second, I am “generalization averse” when it comes to parrots. Third, it has always seemed to me that the issues of day length and the need for sleep get confused in most discussions, clouding the issues. Finally, I have lived with larger parrots now for close to 30 years and have never provided 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. My parrots have never been ill nor have they demonstrated behavior problems that could be traced back to inadequate rest.
The reason most often given for this professed need is that most parrot species originate from equatorial regions where there are roughly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness in a 24-hour period. Further, observers of parrots in the wild report that they begin to roost for the night shortly after the sun goes down. Therefore, the argument derives that parrots must need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night. But, is this a logical argument?
First, if you examine a map of the world with latitude lines and the equator clearly marked (in red here), you see that a good many parrot species originate from regions both above and below the equator. For example, Monk (Quaker) Parakeets were originally identified in regions in Argentina which are located at 45 degrees below the equator, roughly half way between the equator and the South Pole (Forshaw 1977, 442).
Second, it has been noted publicly by those who have traveled extensively and are familiar with parrots that it is neither dark nor quiet in the wild. The moon illuminates the night sky to some degree on most nights and nocturnal animals move about as well. This would seem to negate the oft-repeated advice that parrots need complete dark and quiet for restful sleep.
I also found it repeatedly stated that parrots will be “cranky and impatient,” i.e quicker to bite, if they get less sleep than has been advised. (Womach, 2012). The assumption is that the parrot is “cranky” because he is not getting enough sleep. If we tend to be cranky from lack of sleep, then this must be true for parrots as well. However, humans and parrots are vastly different organisms. If a parrot is “cranky” and non-compliant, it’s more likely to reflect a lack of training, rather than fatigue. A well-trained parrot will step up and respond to other cues whether tired or not.
Science-Based Evidence About Sleep in Birds
Looking beyond the surface here, fascinating science-based information about sleep in birds can be found that informs this discussion. First, it appears that birds do not maintain active sleep for extended periods. As noted in the Handbook of Bird Biology, “… unlike most mammals, active sleep periods are short in birds, and in some species sleep is interrupted frequently to permit vigilance against potential predators.” (Lovette 2016, 254)
Further, avian sleep research has proven that all birds and some aquatic mammals like dolphins have the ability to sleep with only one half of their brain at a time. “The visual systems of birds are crossed in relation to the brain halves; that is, neurons from each eye go to the opposite side of the brain. By alternating the sleeping half of the brain throughout the night, these birds can still be watching out for predators with one eye always open, while still getting the required brain rest and perhaps dreaming.” (Lovette 2016, 254) Birds have evolved this sleep system for avoiding predation. This sheds significant doubt on the standard advice that they must be in a dark environment without interruptions in order to sleep well.
Research has also now proven that migratory birds can sleep while flying. Alpine Swifts can remain airborne for 200 days at a time, suggesting that all vital physiological processes, including sleep, can be achieved in flight. Further, sleep is severely restricted at times in some species during migration and breeding. (Rattenborg et al, 2016)
Roosting vs. Sleeping
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology discusses roosting and sleeping as two separate activities, although one does lead to the other. “All birds sleep and all birds roost. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but in fact they have rather different meanings.” When a bird has “gone to roost” this simply means that he has moved to the place where he will sleep. Once there, he may engage in a variety of behaviors including preening, resting without sleeping, or engaging socially with his flock members.
It is roost entry and departure that correspond most directly with day length; the sleep period seems less so. (Brooke and Birkhead 1991, 145). “Most birds spend about eight hours out of every 24 hour cycle asleep, although there is great variability between species in the amount of sleep and even within species there may be a large seasonal variation.” (Brooke and Birkhead 1991, 148). This information suggests that, while parrots may roost for a period roughly equivalent to the length of darkness, they may not necessarily be sleeping throughout this period.
Excessive Sleep a Risk Factor for Feather Damaging Behavior in Greys
Another interesting finding comes from a completely different source. A study was done in the United Kingdom a few years ago which sought to identify risk factors for feather damaging behavior in African grey parrots and cockatoos. Two risk factors for the population of African greys studied were (1) increasing length of ownership and (2) increasing hours of sleep. “Having ≥ 12 hours of dark, quiet, uninterrupted sleep per night increased the odds of feather plucking in African Grey parrots by more than 7 times in the multivariable model compared with those that had < 8 hours sleep per night.” (Jayson et al, 2014, 250-257)
A last piece of information concerns slow-wave sleep (SWS) and non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Humans and birds alike experience both SWS and REM sleep. However, while episodes of REM sleep in mammals can be many minutes in duration, avian REM sleep periods rarely exceed 10 seconds and occur hundreds of times per day. (Lesku and Rattenborg 2014)
Should We Provide a Roosting Experience?
Okay…it’s time for some common sense. We have the issues of roosting, sleeping and day length to examine to try to get a bit closer to identifying what parrots really need. I am especially interested in the concept of roosting; until now this has been given little attention.
The ability to roost prior to sleep could be very important to parrots. It is a behavior I observe daily in my own flock. Some of my parrot-keeping practices could be considered unconventional. For instance, I don’t put all of my parrots in cages at night. The Moluccan sleeps in his cage because he’s too destructive to be out. However, my four African greys and Amazon have all chosen individual perches outside of their cages for sleeping. Each evening, they go to roost on these perches about an hour before they know that lights will go out. They preen and generally settle down, but do not go to sleep. It seems to be a deeply satisfying experience for them, one that prepares them for sleep.
We can only guess at the function of this roosting pattern in the wild. Possibly it helps to solidify flock bonds. It may afford the bird a chance to examine the surroundings for a period before deciding that it’s safe to go to sleep. Perhaps someday we will know. However, for now, we should question the wisdom of sleep cages and how they are used.
This practice of having a second small cage in another room that can be completely dark is quite popular. But, if we take an alert, wakeful parrot, and put him into a small cage and then immediately into a dark room, are we robbing him of this roosting time? Is roosting prior to sleep important for parrots? Is this something we should provide for? We don’t know. However, this information should at least lead us to broaden our thinking.
Sleep Needs for Parrots
As to sleep, all of the scientific information above sheds doubt on the fact that all parrots must have 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. The truth is we don’t really know how many hours of sleep each parrot species or individual needs.
Perhaps it’s time to remember how much we don’t know about the parrots with whom we live. Familiarity does not necessarily bring knowledge. And it does us all a disservice to repeat unconditional, absolute, explicit statements about their needs that are based solely on thinking rooted in assumption. Further, that statement about sleep has been repeated so often that it has limited our vision. It’s a dead end to further investigation and discussion.
So, what do parrots need when it comes to sleep? “What do they need for best physical and mental health?”
Strive for Consistency and Predictability
In my experience, they need consistency and predictability. Veterinarian Fern Van Sant agrees: “Getting birds’ day-night schedules on a consistent schedule is more important than the amount of sleep they receive.” “Whether you can give your birds nine or 12 hours of sleep each night, make sure it’s the same each night. If a bird gets eight hours one night, 12 another and 10 the following, its bio-rhythms will ‘get out of whack,’ setting it up for behavioral and health problems.” (Gordon, Rose 2018)
Beyond that, we should look to the parrot to tell us about his needs. We can assume that young, very old or sick parrots may need more sleep than others, but careful observation of most parrots will give us some clues. This information must then be balanced with our own needs. Social balance in the home will only be achieved if the needs of all are considered.
Therefore, if you don’t get home until 6 pm and you have religiously been putting your parrot to bed in a sleep cage at 6:30 so that he can get that recommended period of sleep, consider allowing him to stay up later. His social needs may very well be greater than his need for 12 hours of sleep a night.
If your parrot resists when you try to put him to bed, a similar reformulation of schedule may be needed. On the other hand, if you allow your parrot to stay up until 11:00 pm every night and you have to wake him to put him to bed, he may need an earlier bedtime. If your parrot chews his feathers more at night, look to the sleep schedule. If he is awake at 6:00 am because a little bit of light comes into his room and you don’t get him up until 8:00 am, that two-hour period is prime feather damaging time.
If you have been tip-toeing around at night or depriving yourself of trips to the refrigerator in fear of waking your parrot, you can stop that right now. Obviously, parrots have evolved systems for incorporating interruptions like that into their ability to get adequate rest.
The Impact of Day Length
Last, we have the issue of day length. We don’t know what the physiological effect of day length is on sleep, behavior and biological rhythms. However, I have observed over the years that parrots who live indoors do still have a very real relationship with the outdoors. It stands to reason that day length may have a significant impact upon them.
It makes sense to me, as so many have advised, that it would be optimal to create for our parrots a day length that mimics that of their place of origin. We could research both where our parrot species came from and the amount of day light present there. Then, we could use a sleep cage in a room with black-out shades to replicate this. However, is this really needed? We always tout the adaptability and flexibility of parrots. On this issue, I will default to the old adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
However, we do know that increasing or decreasing day length seems to be a trigger for the production of reproductive hormones. New World parrots like Amazons, macaws, and Pionus often display behavior in the spring described as “hormonal.” On the other hand, many African greys and cockatoos display this behavior first as the days grow shorter. Given this, it may very well make sense to artificially decrease day length in an Amazon or other New World parrot in order to get egg-laying or extreme aggression under control. This is often recommended by avian veterinarians. In my experience, this does not work with the Old World species, such as greys and cockatoos.
In summary, if the sleeping arrangements you have devised for your parrot are working well, it’s probably best to leave them alone. However, if they do not meet your needs, or are causing problems, feel free to experiment based upon the information above. Find what works for both you and your parrot. Rather than applying arbitrary rules, look to your parrot to discover what he needs. Consider altering day length if there is a strong need to do so. Use your common sense!
- Forshaw, Joseph. Parrots of the World. Neptune: T.F.H Publications, 1977.
- “How Much Sleep Does My Parrot Need.” Fixing Your Parrot’s Problems. 15 Sept 2012. http://www.birdtricks.com/blog/how-much-sleep-does-my-parrot-need
- Lovette, Irby and John Fitzpatrick. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.
- Rattenborg et al. Evidence that Birds Sleep in Mid-flight.” Nature Communications, 3 Aug 2016. < https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12468>
- Brooke, Michael and Tim Birkhead. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Jayson, Stephanie, David Williams, and James L.N. Wood. “Prevalence and Risk Factors of Feather Plucking in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus and Psittacus erithacus timneh) and Cockatoos (Cacatua spp.)” Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 23 (2014), pp 250-257.
- Gordon, Rose. “The Science of Parrot Sleep.” https://www.petcha.com/the-science-of-parrot-sleep
- Lesku, John and Niels Rattenborg. “Avian Sleep.” Current Biology.< https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.005>