Light It Up!
by Diana Uyen (Parrot Problem Solving 101)
All birds need full spectrum lighting (unfiltered sunlight) for good health. Captive birds have limited access to this necessary lighting when they live an indoor life. A sunny room is not good enough because glass windows can filter up to 90% of the UVB rays that a bird needs. If there is a screen in the opening (with no window glass at all), that can filter as much as 30% of the necessary UV lighting.
So how do we provide the necessary lighting for our birds? Aside from sunlight outdoors, we do this with artificial lighting using full spectrum bulbs especially meant for avian use, and no, not all full spectrum bulbs are created equal.
There are many types out there. There are some that give the illusion of full spectrum, there are bulbs meant for other critters like lizards, and there are lights meant for fish. The ones you want are the ones especially meant for birds. They should be labeled for Avian use, but you also need to look a little further, specifically you want to look at the quality of that light. You are looking for both UVA and UVB spectrums. What does this type of lighting do for our birds?
Natural synthesis of Vitamin D which has an effect on the glandular system, the hypothalamus, thyroid, pineal gland. These important functions of a bird’s system effect feather development and skin health, the process of molting, the reproductive system, and migration. UVA and UVB promotes normal preening to remove debris and dander and distribute oil from the preening gland onto the feathers for protection and water proofing. It is the exposure to UVB that promotes the health of this gland as well as allowing for the conversion of ingestible vitamin D3.
The right kind of light promotes the production and absorption of vitamins and calcium, which in turn produces growth and vibrant colors and vitality. UVB can be assimilated through the feet, cere, and any bare patches of skin. This is what is happening when they are basking and actively seeking out exposure when preening in sunlight.
Humans and animals usually have 3 cones in our eyes which allows us to see 3 major colors and combinations thereof. Birds have 4 cones which allows them to see lower wave length (UVA), adding to their color perspective. It is also thought that this full spectrum lighting allows them to see magnetic waves (used in migration). These light waves that they see help them to see more colors enabling them to determine the sex of a perspective mate by sight so they can settle down to nesting quickly. Interesting to note also, that the lack of proper lighting (UVA) is also thought to promote squabbling amongst flockmates.
All captive creatures (including birds and reptiles) require a "gradient light" which is achieved by fitting your bird lighting over roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the total living space of the cage. This becomes the area that your bird will bask in. This also leaves an area where there is less lighting for the bird to move to. Birds will move to the proper lighting (when provided) and regulate themselves in this way, based on their need. These lights, on average, should be placed approximately 12 to 18 inches above and slightly to the side of the top perch of the cage (placement on the outside of cage only). Be careful to protect any cording from being chewed to avoid electrocution.
Placement should be above the cage, also to avoid directly shining the light in the bird’s eyes, and it's also recommended to use a timer for the light so it comes on and turns off at the same time every day to mimic natural sunlight, usually during the brightest period of the day, and bigger cages or rooms may need more lights.
Just as important as daylight, darkness is important to birds as well. Strive for 12 hours of dark for captive birds. This can help with minimize hormonal issues or reproductive behavior and undesired practices that often accompany it such has aggressive attitudes, plucking, or self mutilation). Of course this all goes hand-in-hand with proper diet and mental stimulation.
What kind of lights should I use?
As mentioned above you want UVA and UVB (full spectrum lighting). You will be looking for a minimum of 5000K (kelvin is a unit of measure for temperature based upon an absolute scale); some say this can go up to 6400K. For UVA, look for a CRI (colour rendering index) of 90 or higher. The preferred level for birds is between 91-96 CRI (it may state on/in packaging 12%). For UVB, you are looking for 290-310 nanometers of wavelength (it may state on/in packaging 2.4%). Some packages will have this information on them or a pamphlet inside providing this information. If not, contact the manufacturer for the information. If they will not provide it, then use a different light company.
Always read the directions for recommendations of use and replacement periods. Most lights will need to be replaced every 6 months to a year, depending on usage, as the UV becomes weaker over time and no longer provides the proper benefits. But hey, don't just throw a working bulb away, you can use in other light fixtures to for general lighting.
There are many configurations of bulbs or tubes and some come in different strengths. Consider the cage setups and size of the area you want to light to determined what type is best for your needs. Make sure tubes are protected from contact with birds to prevent injury and breakage. The screw-in bulb types usually have their own ballast and can be used in many types of sockets approved for that wattage. Some older, larger tube types (usually magnetic) may not be good for use with birds because of noise and flickering. Newer light manufacturers have fixed these issues and are now electronic (not magnetic) with a converted, inline frequency of 20,000 to 60,000 cycles/second; the better quality is approximately 42,000 cycles per second or greater.
NOTE: Incandescent lighting will not work as they cater to human vision; most avian lighting is fluorescent.
Some of the companies I have found for avian lighting are:
Zoo Med Avian Sun, Sunblaster, Parrot Pro, Chromalux, Vita-Lite, Arcadia, and Featherbrite. Here on Parrot Problem Solving 101 our favorite is Featherbrite.
Please free to read further on their light sources and recommendations. Remember some places selling avian bulbs may be just repackaged reptile bulbs so always check for quality of lighting. Reptile bulbs can damage your bird, so DO NOT USE REPTILE BULBS OR LIGHTING. These lights are also not heat lights but may give off some heat so be sure to check them.
Recommended Duration of Lighting:
Most smaller parrots (Cockatiels, parakeets, lovebirds) - Approximately 1-2 hours per day.
Most medium (African-Greys, Poicephalus and likely Vasa) Eclectus and Cockatoo - Approximately 4-6 hours per day.
All others (including South American) - Approximately 2-4 hours per day.