Lighting Needs: Could Your Parrot Be UV Deficient?

I have a Double Yellow-headed Amazon named Harpo who is 20 years old. A couple of friends came to visit recently and exclaimed over his appearance.  They too have an Amazon, but report that her coloring isn’t nearly as vibrant. Harpo is stunningly bright and his coloring is vivid.

Harpo
Harpo Under Normal Room Lighting

I could only point to Harpo’s time regularly spent outdoors in my aviary as the factor that creates that difference. I have always stressed the importance of providing an outdoor aviary for parrots, but my friends’ reactions decided me that I should take another pass at delivering this message.

The information that parrots need specialized indoor lighting or natural sunshine is not new.  Full spectrum (FS) bulbs have been recommended for years. But… does full spectrum lighting really meet all of our parrots’ needs?  I have attempted below to provide a thoughtful discussion of not only why birds need exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, but the different options for providing this. Hopefully, this information will not only protect your parrots’ health, but provide valuable help to organize your efforts to provide adequate lighting in a cost vs. benefit manner.

Why Is Natural Light Important to Birds?

The term natural light is often used when discussing light quality. Natural light is composed of a broad spectrum that includes ultraviolet (UV) rays. The normal lighting in our homes cannot be defined as natural lighting for the purposes of this discussion.

Our companion parrots specifically need the ultraviolet portion of natural light for three reasons: (1) to promote vitamin D synthesis and absorption, (2) to prevent diseases directly related to UV deficiency, and (3) to promote overall well-being and quality of life. (Becker 2014)

UV Light, Vitamin D, and Parrots

Both parrots and humans need adequate amounts of vitamin D to aid in nutrient absorption and facilitate metabolic processes. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. If a parrot develops a vitamin D deficiency, she will also suffer over time from a calcium deficiency. This can result in egg-binding, soft-shelled eggs, bone fractures and seizures.

Adequate calcium levels are also necessary for maintaining normal function of the heart, muscles and nerves. (Ritchie, Branson and Harrison, Greg 1997) African grey parrots are prone to hypocalcemia (low calcium levels). However increasingly, this “calcium deficiency” is thought to be the result of low vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D deficiencies been implicated in the avian disease known as “stargazing.” They are also thought to be involved in Conure Bleeding Syndrome and in some types of cancer. (Becker 2014)

Three Options for Vitamin D

The precursors to the more active form of vitamin D3 can be obtained from food. Certain foods are better sources than others. However, dietary sources may not be the most efficient way for parrots to get enough vitamin D3.

We don’t know how well parrots absorb this nutrient from their diet.  This is because they have evolved an amazing ability to synthesize this vitamin through exposure to natural sunlight. It is possible that they may have a decreased ability to absorb vitamin D from their diet, due to this ability. There is much to be discovered here and to date there have been no species-specific needs established.

Most parrot species have an uropygial gland located at the base of the tail.  Referred to as the “preen” gland, it exudes a fatty, waxy substance. (In Amazon parrots and some macaws this gland is absent; it is believed that these species get vitamin D from skin exposure.)

Secretions from this gland contain a compound that produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. As a parrot preens under light from a source of UV rays, she ingests the vitamin D that she’s been creating while preening.  This compound is then converted by the liver to the more usable form, Vitamin D3.

Parrots also absorb vitamin D through the eyes. (Becker 2014) Humans’ eyes filter out UV light, but parrots’ eyes do not. A parrot’s eyes will absorb red, green and blue light, but also UV light. Birds also have an additional structure around the retina, called the Harderian gland. This aids in the absorption of UV light into the retina.

Moreover, this gland communicates with the pineal and pituitary glands to help regulate breathing, molting, day and night cycles and, in some cases migration. (Becker 2014) Since a parrot’s metabolism and overall health are regulated by the pineal and pituitary glands, it is essential that parrots have adequate access to UV light on a regular basis. We cannot assume that dietary sources are sufficient.

Quality of Life

While we have good documentation regarding the health benefits of FS light, we have little information as to how it impacts other factors relating to quality of life. This is obviously difficult to document through research. We must rely on anecdotal information from those who provide lighting to their parrots. Dr. Becker reports that access to ultraviolet light improves the following:

  • Feather damaging behavior
  • Poor feather quality
  • Organ dysfunction
  • Immunologic disorders
  • Poor mood and temperament

I believe the last claim to be absolutely true. I can send five snarky, irritable, bored parrots out into the sunshine in the morning and in the evening, I bring in five relaxed, happy birds. It’s like magic.  Just as we experience greater well-being and relaxation after spending time outdoors, so do our parrots.

It’s A Need, Not a Want

The need to actively provide a specific type of lighting then is not in dispute.  Parrots who do not receive either indoor full spectrum lighting or access to sunlight in an outdoor aviary are at risk for illness and poor quality of life. Formulated diets and the natural lighting in our homes are not enough. “Overall, the benefits of UV light warrant that every companion parrot should receive some exposure.” (Wade 2009)

This brings us then promptly to a discussion of full-spectrum lighting versus natural sunlight. How do we want to provide for our parrots’ light needs?

Full Spectrum Bulbs

 The ultraviolet light spectrum consists of three kinds of light: UVA, UVB and UVC. Birds and reptiles can see UVA wavelengths; we cannot. (Wade, Laura 2009) The UVA portion assists parrots when selecting mates and identifying ripe foods. It is the UVB portion that helps them metabolize vitamin D. UVC is filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere, so is not a concern.  Light Spectrum Better

Windows and fine mesh screening filter out the UVB portion of the ultraviolet spectrum. Thus, sunlight that comes in through a window does not protect your parrot’s health. (Windows do not filter out the UVA rays, which is why your carpets will still bleach over time when sunlight hits them through a window.)

If you are thinking about providing FS lighting, there are six things you must know. Few people really have the facts about full spectrum lighting. There is a great deal of misinformation in print, as well as a lack of information provided by the industry who sells these bulbs. Most of the information in print was extrapolated from use with reptiles, which is inappropriate.  Reptiles and birds have different lighting and dietary needs. (Thrush 1999) This is what you need to know:

#1: The words full spectrum create confusion. This description can be used by manufacturers to advertise bulbs even if they do not emit UV rays. In these products, the term full spectrum merely means that the range of light emitted is visible to the human eye. They may emit UVA rays, but not the UVB that your bird needs. You must purchase a specialty bulb manufactured just for birds.

#2: The UVB rays emitted from even the specialty lights are much weaker than the total component of visible light that they produce. (Thrush 1999) It does not travel as far from the lamp as the visible rays do. Thus, most recommendations call for placement of the bulb as close to the parrot as possible without resulting in corneal damage or burning of the skin.

A typical recommendation is as close as 6 inches from the parrot’s head and no further than 12 to 18 inches away. This means that to get adequate exposure, your  parrot has to sit directly under the bulb. If he spends much time on the bottom of his cage foraging or away from the cage, he is not benefiting from the UVB rays the bulb produces.

#3: Birds have much thinner skin than do mammals.  Their corneas also are thinner. This is why they are more sensitive to UV light. This puts them at risk for developing corneal inflammation if UV bulbs are used incorrectly or have an output that exceeds recommendations.

Such a case was documented in a Meyer’s parrot. Testing of the bulb in this case revealed very high levels of quite low UVB light emitted. Another documented case involved “skin burning” in an African grey after the initial introduction of a new UV bulb. According to Dr. Wade, “…increased damage from high intensity, low-wavelength UV light may increase the risk of cancer and cataracts over time.” (Wade 2009)

#4: Since UV lighting has become so popular for parrots, there has been a rapid increase in the manufacturing of these and the types that are available.  Unfortunately, there are no industry standards in place. Dr. Wade has done extensive testing of available bulbs and has found a large variance in emissions.

She recommends either the Arcadia Bird Lamp linear tube or the Duro-Test Vita-Lite linear tube for low UVB needs.  Parrots who might benefit from higher emissions include those eating a seed diet, those who don’t get any natural sunlight, or that are laying eggs.  For these parrots, she recommends using either the ZooMed Reptisun 5.0 linear tube or the Hagen ExoTerra Reptiglo 5.0 linear tube. (Wade 2009)

She specifies linear tubes as best for birds if UV light is provided during the winter months. During the warmer months, she urges caregivers to provide their birds with 20 to 30 minutes of unfiltered sun exposure two to three times each week.

#5: The output of UV light from your full spectrum bulb will decrease over time as it ages. We cannot depend upon manufacturers’ statements regarding lamp life; these merely reflect the time at which we might expect the bulb to stop working.

It is phosphors within these bulbs that produce the light rays. The phosphors that produce the UV rays are different than those that produce the visible light. Those that produce the UV light degrade at a much faster rate. According to Thrush, after 3000 hours of operation the levels of UVB emitted from the lamp will have decreased by 20 percent. Therefore, full-spectrum bulbs should be replaced every 6 months, even if the output of visible light hasn’t changed. (Wade 2009)

#6: FS bulbs are florescent bulbs and are rated as to their Color Rendering Index (CRI). This CRI rating reflects the bulb’s ability to make colors appear and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. Natural sunlight at noon has a CRI of 100. Most indoor lighting has a CRI in the 60s or 70s. Even some FS bulbs will have a CRI as low as 85. For correct color perception, parrots need a CRI higher than 90.  This is yet one more factor to consider when choosing a bulb.

The CRI also reflects the speed at which the light is emitted. Not only do birds see a larger portion of the color spectrum than we do, they are able to see at a faster speed. Light is emitted in wavelengths. When the speed of light is too slow, parrots will not perceive it as continuous light.  They will see a flicker.  This can create visual disturbances and is another reason to purchase a bulb with a CRI of 90 or higher.

To summarize, if we are going to use full spectrum bulbs we must (1) choose carefully giving thought to type and CRI rating, (2) place them no further than 12 to 18 inches from the parrot, and (3) replace them every 6 months. While most veterinarians recommend using full spectrum bulbs at least during the winter months, cautions exist and some question whether FS lighting could diminish quality of life outside of health concerns.

Dr. Becker reminds us: “Nothing man-made can ever completely replace the health benefits nature provides in clean, fresh air and sunlight.” Dr. Wade describes natural, unfiltered sunlight as “ideal.” Thrush is more direct: “The author invites the reader to take a fluorescent lamp assembly and sit with it about a foot or two away from his/her face for twelve hours and then assess if they believe this to be a pleasant experience.”

The Outdoor Aviary and Other Options

If these facts about FS lighting cause you to reconsider its use, an outdoor aviary is the ideal. Please don’t disregard this as impossible before considering all the facts. The investment in an aviary will produce a lifetime of benefits to you and your birds.

Every individual who has purchased an aviary upon my recommendation has come back to me with gratitude. Wendy describes her aviary as “The most important tool besides the Kings 506 we have to successfully keep Georgie Pink Superstar. It was critical in bringing along Alison when she arrived. I will never forget her first day in the aviary. Her face in the sun reflected absolute joy. Additionally, as a caregiver trying to provide for large cockatoos, it keeps my sanity at times.”

David says: “I am very happy that I was encouraged to have an outdoor aviary–enough to move it halfway across the continent! Parrots receive natural full spectrum lighting. They can see other birds and outdoor phenomena safely. They feel the wind and weather in their feathers and across their bodies, and are able to exercise in a different way. It’s a different sort of mental and physical activity.”

Providing an aviary is a “win” for all. Parrots enjoy their birthright – sunshine, rain, wind and the stimulation of that combination. They move around more. They enjoy bathing in the rain. For further enrichment, an aviary can be planted with vegetables, flowers and herbs for foraging.

ParrotAndFlowers Aviary.KrisPorter
Photo by Kris Porter

Time spent in an outdoor aviary will also do wonders to calm down a “hormonal” parrot and I believe that recovery from feather damaging behavior may depend in some cases upon exposure to sunlight.

The benefit to the humans in the house is just as significant. Parrots have large personalities and it can be nice to have a short break from them. If the aviary is constructed well, supervision of the parrot(s) is not necessary after a period of introduction.  A well-constructed aviary will provide adequate safety, even in your absence.

If you are convinced, your options will be to build from scratch or purchase a pre-fabricated aviary. I strongly encourage you to choose the latter. For safety from predators, your aviary should be constructed of galvanized wire that is at least 14 gauge (12 is better) and has a spacing of ½-inch by 3 inches.  Having done it, I can tell you that working with this wire is no party. Further, if you construct an aviary yourself, you won’t be able to take it when you leave.

There are many sources for pre-fabricated aviaries. One company I recommend is Corners Limited. Presently, they have a wait time of 6 to 8 weeks. However, the quality of these aviaries is excellent. They are easy to set up, attractive, and can be moved. They can be powder coated if you are concerned about the safety of galvanized wire.

Aviary between log home and guest house
One of Wendy’s Three CL Aviaries

If an aviary is absolutely out of the question, other options exist.  You can provide another parrot cage on a deck or other place of safety. However, the bar spacing of most will pose a danger if raptors or other predators are nearby. Constant supervision is necessary.

Another option is the Cageoller.  This is essentially a cage on wheels that can be taken for walks or simply moved outdoors.  Again, supervision is necessary.

If we provide an aviary or other safe option for getting our bird outdoors, we don’t have to concern ourselves with all the uncertainties that can accompany the use of full-spectrum bulbs.  We can rely on our parrot’s inner wisdom to limit their time in the sun, which they will do. It is absolutely the best option for your parrots.

Sources cited:

Ritchie DVM, Branson and Greg and Linda Harrison. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing, Inc., 1997 Abridged Edition.

Wade DVM, ABVP, Laura. “Ultraviolet Lighting for Companion Birds: Benefits & Risks. 2009. http://www.buffalobirdnerd.com/clients/8963/documents/UVlightingBirds.pdf

Becker DVM, Karen. “The Essential Nutrient Your Pet Bird Could Be Lacking.” The Huffington Post. 2014. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-karen-becker/pet-bird-health_b_4017365.html

https://www.sageglass.com/sites/default/files/the_hidden_benefits_of_natural_light.pdf

https://www.petcha.com/light-health-for-pet-birds

https://bestfriends.org/resources/lighting-and-bird-health-sunlight-and-full-spectrum-lighting-considerations

 

 

Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

SONY DSC

Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.