On my continuous quest for enlightenment regarding all parrot issues I had a rather lengthy conversation with John Courteney-Smith, yesterday, regarding UV-lighting for parrots and other birds. John is Reptile Products Manager for Arcadia Products Plc. the world leader in reptile, aquarium and bird lighting systems. Who better to talk to than the experts who have been active in this field for close to 50 years.
To supplement our hour-long conversation John kindly sent me information material including a lengthy article he wrote that covers all you ever wanted to know and then some about bird vision. I was going to use this as a basis for an article which I was planning to write about the interview. Imagine my pleased surprise today when I received the following e-mail from John:
Hi Ann, I do hope that you are well,
We have been having a good think here about the lighting document.
In short we are very happy for your to reproduce the feature in any way you see fit.
For us it is all about good husbandry and bird welfare. If the lighting document helps keepers to make the right choices we have done our job properly.
With Arcadia it has always been and will always be ANIMALS FIRST!
All we expect is the correct recognition of authorship and a PDF of material used.
I hope this is helpful to you.
Reptile Products Manager
Wow. Ever cool! So without further ado I am posting his article, below. Should you have questions, please post them here or on my facebook page. I will collect them and either answer them myself or ask John for help, as required.
Bird lighting in the home by John Courteney-Smith
I myself am a passionate bird keeper. I grew up with caged birds and they still play a very big part in my day to day life. I count myself as one of the lucky ones, able to remember the glory days of affordable bird keeping and enjoy the wide variety of birds that were once available. I have always kept birds and have a particular love for parrots and African finches. My first pet bird outside of the business environment was a cock yellow napped macaw which we called Charlie.
Birds fascinate me! Everything about them captivates me. It was for this reason that when I joined the Arcadia team I immediately became very interested in bird lighting and more importantly the science behind these systems. I am also a very well known and a similarly passionate reptile keeper. I understand reptiles and I understand the intricacies of how reptiles use natural sunlight in the wild. In fact we should now not just say reptile lighting but call it what it actually is, a life support system. It was only when I was able to see the definite links in the biology between birds and reptiles that a lot of pieces in this rather confusing jigsaw started to come into place.
Birds and reptiles are so similar to each other in regard to their natural sunlight requirements. Both animal groups use sunlight to produce vitamins and hormones in their bodies and both use unfiltered sunlight to view the world. By denying a captive bird access to unfiltered sunlight or a synthetic source of UVA and UVB we effectively deny the bird the right to see as nature intended and produce the vitamins and hormones that they require in the way that nature designed them to. This is a very strong statement which I will now try to explain.
Tetrachromacy is the term used to describe the addition of the all important fourth cone cell in the eye of birds, reptiles and some fish. The inclusion of these four cone shaped cells and the oil droplets that they contain effectively opens up a whole new world to these remarkable animals. Humans using three rod cells (trichromacy) can only reportedly view the world with around one million colours. Tetrachromats are able to see around 100 million colours, that is a massive difference. Humans as usual don’t seem to be able to truly grasp just how important this maybe to birds, maybe it is because we cannot experience viewing the world in the way in which birds do. The inclusion of this fourth cone cell allows the bird to see wavelengths of light that humans simply cannot see i.e far into red and blue and also into the ultra violet wavelength. Most of us have seen the fantastic BBC series “the life of birds”. Why did the bib of the budgerigar glow when exposed to a black light? These black lights emit a lot of UVA, this then allows a human to see UV reactive patches on birds and things like banknotes. Birds and reptiles both appear to wear badges! Special fluorescent patches appear on the feathers and scales when viewed under the correct wavelength of light and using the gift of tetrachromacy. Humans cannot see UV so we have to use a black light to view these patches. Birds can see them all of the time if the tetrachromatic ability is “activated” by providing exposure to UVA. These fluorescent patches seem to show the differences in the sexes especially in the monomorphic species, health, condition and breeding readiness. It has also been shown now that UVA effects how birds view potential food sources. Tetrachromacy in the wild helps birds find food. It seems that riper fruits are easier to spot in dense foliage with the benefit of Tetrachromacy. The waxy surface of these fruits seem to show up like a neon sign to birds. For softbill’s the theory is the same. Insects also display these patches, so a fast moving or hidden insect could actually to a bird be a shining beacon of a display sign that says “here is food”. I have also read studies showing that poisonous insects and plants seem to display warnings using these flouro patches that they are not good to eat. Yellow flowers reportedly show as bright red, humming birds use this gift to spot the right flowers with good amounts of nectar. Raptors use Tetrachromacy to see the urine trails left by rodents as they travel through their runs. Great eyesight is coupled with the ability to see these urine markers, this can then show the raptor a potential food source even in dense foliage. Rest assured the more you study Tetrachromacy the more interesting and addictive it becomes.
So what is UVA?
UVA is described as the wavelengths of light ranging between 320nm and 400nms. It is in the blue end of the spectrum and into ultraviolet. This wavelength is not short enough to start the D3 cycle on its own but has many other reported positive effects in and around birds and reptiles. A balanced natural provision of the correct UVA wavelengths will not only allow the animal to view the world in a more natural way but has been linked to a better feeding response, a more constructive social behavioural pattern and is now also now starting to be linked to the production of certain hormones and chemical responses in the brain. A fully illuminated photoperiod including UVA has also been shown to aid in beneficial preening and daily cleaning. We all know that UVB causes the production of vitamin D3 which is also commonly called the sunshine vitamin; surely it is as important to allow our pet birds to see properly and benefit from the intricate changes in the body that can also be attributed to exposure to UVA in the correct levels.
Bird lighting is one of those products that if it is fitted properly show’s results almost immediately. As soon as the lamp is switched on you will generally see the birds become more animated. In the case of song birds the cocks usually break out into spontaneous song. As a test I have never yet encountered a cock canary that is out of song not start to sing again within a few hours of provision in the correct way. Cock whydahs will bounce up and down and display within seconds, parrots will sit under the lamp and actively bask. They will typically open the wings and ruffle the breast feathers to allow exposure to their skin. Bare faced birds will also sometimes blush. It really is amazing.
Most house hold lamps will emit a very small amount of UVA. Unfortunately the percentage of UVA that these lamps emit is not enough to cause a reaction in the bird. If the total output of light including invisible light is called 100% we at Arcadia recommend that 12% of the total should be UVA. All lamps have inherent limitations and UVA and UVB does not travel very far from a lamp. It is no use simply fitting a bird lamp in a bird room ceiling. The birds need to be able to position themselves quite closely to the lamp to be able to utilise the emissions properly. Safety is the key and as we all know parrots have large powerful beaks. All lighting equipment should be fitted safely and away from the bird’s attentions.
It is vital that we do not confuse full spectrum lamps that have a pleasing natural daylight colour with UV emitting full spectrum lamps; they are totally different!!
UVA and UVB cannot pass through glass or plastics these materials block these wavelengths from transmission to the bird, even aviary mesh will slightly reduce the bird’s ability to obtain these wavelengths. We have all placed our birds by the window or in the conservatory but other than providing the birds a nice warm, bright environment in which to live a cage in a conservatory will have little positive effect on the bird as the useful wavelengths will have been totally blocked. Of course small amounts of energy will be transmitted to the bird if the window is able to be left opened safely and the bird is in direct exposure to unfiltered sunlight. We can never however replicate what nature has created! We can never truly harness the power of the sun or even replicate it. Good UV emitting bird lighting, fitted correctly does help captive birds immensely. Where possible and if it becomes warm enough our birds should still be given access to unfiltered natural sunlight. It is a great idea to place the cage in the garden when you are out there in the summer. Beware of predators especially in the form of sparrow hawks. Even a few hours once or twice a week will have a very positive effect on the bird. For the rest of the year bird lighting can be a real asset. You can use bird lighting to start or delay a breeding season. Simply lengthening or shortening the hours of illumination during the day will achieve this. You can use good quality bird lighting to provide natural colour vision to the birds and aid in the production of vitamins and hormones in the bird’s body and you can also use bird lighting as an aid in the fight against feather plucking and bad behaviour. This is a very sensitive topic which I will cover next time as we start to look at UVB and its effects on captive and wild birds.
UVB and its effects on birds
Birds are incredible! In the last part of this series we looked at light and how it can affect wild and captive birds. In particular we looked at the wavelength of light commonly known as UVA. We learnt that birds, reptiles and some fish are tetrachromatic and can see roughly 99 million more colours than humans being trichromatic. We learned that birds use UVA to view the world. This special adaption allows birds to see the differences between the sexes, breeding readiness and good and bad food sources. We learned that this wavelength could affect the general wellbeing of the bird and could also help to balance hormone levels; this would in turn provide a much less stressful and more natural environment for the bird to enjoy. But what about the other useful wavelength of light that we call UVB?
UVB is the term used to describe the wavelengths of light between 280-320nm.this is far into the blue spectrum. This wavelength of light which is invisible to humans would need to be provided at these wavelengths and in enough power to start and complete what is commonly known as the D3 cycle. This is the ability of animals including humans to produce and utilise vitamin D3 in the skin but only after exposure to unfiltered natural sunlight. Vitamin D3, among many other uses allows the assimilation of calcium. I guess one word that we could use would be “catalyst”. Without vitamin D3 in the correct levels calcium simply cannot be absorbed into the animals system properly. Vitamin d3 is produced more effectively when light is emitted at 297nm, a good UV source should have a slight peak at this wavelength. Birds and reptiles rely on this natural process to flourish in the wild. A lack of D3 and calcium can cause painful and even fatal conditions in birds and reptiles. The most common of which is called “metabolic bone disease” which we will now refer to as MBD. This is a terrible condition caused by a critical lack of calcium in the body of the animal. Bones affected by this preventable condition will turn very rubbery and will also become very misshapen. Rickets is probably the closest disease that occurs in humans for reference.
UVB cannot pass through most glasses and plastics so placing your pet birds next to a closed window will have no effect on the D3 cycle but will provide welcome warmth to the bird. Light needs to be unfiltered. We provide this by allowing the bird daily access to natural sunlight outside of our bird rooms or by providing an artificial light source like the Arcadia bird lamp.
So how does the D3 cycle work?
The following is an excerpt from my new book which details how light travels through the forests and its effects on all of the forests in-habitants.
This amazing process begins when a cholesterol called pro vitamin D(7DHC) is produced in the skin of an animal. This is a natural process in humans, birds and reptiles. When this cholesterol is exposed to natural light including light in the UVB wavelength (290-315nm) this cholesterol is turned in the skin membrane into pre vitamin D. This newly manufactured pre vitamin D is then converted in the skin membrane and only after exposure to warmth into vitamin D3. It is essential to have this heating up period alongside UV radiation. Vitamin D3 is then sent out into the blood plasma from this skin membrane and is bound with a vitamin D binding protein. This is then carried to the liver where this part of this vitamin is converted to a hormone called calcediol (25-hydroxy vitamin D3). Calcediol is then carried in the blood all around the body and into the kidneys where some of this hormone is turned into another hormone called calcetriol. This compound then plays an essential role in calcium metabolism and controls the levels of calcium in the blood. ©Jcs 2011.
Unfiltered sunlight has a direct and dramatic effect on birds. With access to the right vitamins and hormones birds will not only feel better in themselves but they will be able to assimilate calcium in good quantities. This will help with ensuring good bone density, feather production and egg viability. There is also a feeling now that a critical lack of D3 can cause birds to become miserable. This can lead to plucking and bad behaviour. In the same way as humans feel better after spending time in the sun it is entirely probable that birds are affected in the same way. The popularity of SAD “seasonal effective disorder” lamps in recent years just shows how many people are affected by what can be a debilitating disorder. Fortunately there does not seem to be a point of no return! As soon as UVB is provided or a synthetic D3 compound included in the diet the subject seems to pick up very quickly.
I suggest that all bird keepers read Michael Stanford BVSc, MRCVS document “The effect of UVB lighting supplementation in African Grey Parrots”. This enlightening document shows just how important UVB is to birds. In this study the subjects were groups of African Grey parrots but the same theory applies to every other species. It could be true that dense forest dwellers like the amazons may require less radiation than the Grey but they would still benefit hugely from the provision of UV in the correct amount.
Let’s look at the grey as a test case. The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) has been kept as a pet bird for hundreds of years. Its pleasing demeanour and willingness to talk has placed this wonderful bird right at the top of the list of the most popular birds ever kept. But let’s look at the wild bird. It is in the wild state that the species secrets are hidden and await discovery. The African grey is a highly social bird occurring over much of central to eastern Africa with most of the original captive bloodstock originating from the D.R Congo. This is a very high UV index region of the world. An average index recorded by AccuWeather.com is labelled as extreme. This would be a UV index of 8-10. This is the same as the deserts of Australia. These birds as we know are fully diurnal and very active feeders and foragers during the day. The local environment has a good mix of dry grass lands around water holes and forest cover. This would then allow these birds to photo-regulate properly as and when they require. As the general UV index is so high, even under the canopy they would still be receiving more UVB than we experience in the UK in summer. This is due to what is known as leaf scatter illumination. Reflected sunlight reflected off of waxy leaves is just as powerful as direct sunlight but in a smaller area. This bird would be exposed to very high levels of UV over the whole year. When removed from this environment by either wild collection or captive breeding we deny the bird the ability to utilise the energy from the sun that has essentially taken thousands of years to develop. Greys that are kept under the correct UV full spectrum lighting are less likely to growl, more likely to preen, more likely to successfully breed and rear chicks and less likely to develop bone issues and habitually pluck. The glaringly obvious feature of this bird is its bare face, why would a bird that lives in such a high emission area of the world develop a bare face? I do not know to be honest but I do know that this bare skin will allow the bird to assimilate and utilise light very quickly and in large volumes.
The plucking issue is very worrying! One school of thought is that the bird is simply trying to expose more skin to allow more UV energy into its system; another thought is that the lack of D3 has caused madness in the bird and another thought is that the bird has developed a habit. Personally I believe that feather pulling in captive birds is a mix of all three of these. I have personally seen how quickly captive birds can stop plucking when the correct provision of lighting is included. For me it is a very welcome and a slightly magical sight. Veterinary advice should always be sought so that conditions like PBFD can be eliminated. Exposure to the right levels of UV will also increase useful preening. It seems also that the main preening gland is affected in a positive way by exposure to UVB and also contains ingestible D3. Birds can assimilate UVB through their feet, sear and any other bare patches of skin. They are also actively basking and seeking out exposure when preening in open sunlight.
UVB is as essential to birds as it is to reptiles. Without the correct exposure and for the right period of time captive birds experience unnatural vision and could also develop disturbing bone and brain conditions. I think we can now all agree that providing UV light in the correct way will benefit our captive birds but how do we do this properly. I will show you how in the next part.
How to safely and effectively include bird lighting in the home and bird room.
Birds use natural sun light in a totally amazing series of ways. In the last two parts we have looked at UVA and how it directly affects the way that birds see and interact with each other. We have seen just how vital UVB and the D3 cycle is to birds and we have also uncovered some of the mysteries of why birds behave in certain ways. In this part I will explain how to fit a bird lamp so that your system has the maximum effect on your captive birds.
The Arcadia bird lamp has been specifically designed to allow captive birds to use both UVA and UVB in the way that nature intended. This lamp has been designed to emit visible light at a colour that we call “full spectrum+ UV”. Standard full spectrum lamps should not be confused with full spectrum+ UV lamps. The term full spectrum simply refers to the colour of the light that the lamp produces. A standard full spectrum or even some of the SAD lamps produce a colour of light that is very close to natural daylight. It has a very high CRI (colour rendition index) in simple terms these lamps will allow keepers to see their birds in the very best possible way within the limitations of human vision. These lamps do not emit UV. So although the birds look good to us these lamps do not provide any usable UVA or UVB for the bird to utilise. It is important that UVA and UVB is provided in the correct ratios. We advise that a lamp fitted correctly near the bird should emit 12% UVA and 2.4% UVB. I have seen some bird lamps that have a high UVA content which is useful but only produce half of one percent UVB. This is not useable to birds.
Every lamp will have an inherent limitation. UV cannot travel very far from the lamp at all. The further light has to travel between lamp and animal the weaker the exposure will be. A bird lamp fitted three feet above an enclosure would be of very little use to a captive bird as the % of UVB available at the perch would be minimal. Fitting the system in the correct way will show results very quickly for both bird and keeper.
It is essential that ALL light sources are placed above the bird! A bright light source hitting the bird side on can cause eye irritation that can lead to infection. Protect your birds by fitting the lamp above the perch. There are numerous ways of fitting these lamps. One of the easiest and safest ways to light a small parrot or parakeet is to use a compact fluorescent lamp. These self ballasted, energy efficient lamps simply screw into any E27 lamp fitting. The downside is that they are very difficult to reflect properly. I suggest that the compact style lamps are used over the top of the cage in either an angle poised floor lamp or a pendant/reflector hanging down from the ceiling. These compacts can also be used in the Arcadia bird lamp holder and reflector which can attach to the cages of smaller birds. Finches and non chewing parakeets are suitable to make use of this fitting.
For larger species we have to be a little more inventive. Fortunately Arcadia makes the Bird lamp in standard T8 fluorescent tubes. These tubes emit good quality bird lighting over a very wide area. The limitation is that all Flouro lamps emit light 360 degrees around the lamp. These lamps must be used with the correct wattage reflector. These highly polished surfaces capture all of the light, much of which would have been wasted and then places the light and UV energy down onto the bird where it is needed most. These lamps require an external ballast/controller. This is a very simple fitting and very easy to fit and use. All you require is the lamp, the controller and the reflector. These are the two types of bird lamp that are currently available, but how do we fit them in a way that the bird can make the most use of the light?
As with captive reptiles, birds require a gradient of light. This is very easy to achieve. We recommend fitting your bird lighting over roughly a quarter to one third of the total living space of wire parrot cages. This becomes the “basking zone”. The rest of the enclosure will then have a gradual gradient into shade. Birds are very able to ascertain just how much exposure that they require at any given moment and they will move around the enclosure to regulate the exposure that they require. If your cage was 3 feet wide I would use a lamp and reflector that is 18”long. All you need to do is decide whether the front left or back right is your preferred basking zone. Fit the lamp above the cage so that the lamp leads are out of the way of powerful beaks but close enough for the bird to use the light. Ideally the lamp should be fitted no further than 18” from the top of the cage. You should also place a perch high in the basking zone so that the bird can sit directly underneath the lamp as close as safely possible.
For flight cages and indoor aviaries the fitting guide changes slightly. If your flight cage is 6 feet long and 6 foot high you would ideally use a 5 feet lamp. This is because in a flight situation the birds are more likely to be on the move. It is for this reason that we suggest using a longer lamp to open up the usable area of emission as wide as possible. Again choose one side of the flight to be your basking zone and one side to be shade. This will still allow the bird to self regulate between light and shade. In my experience the birds tend to sit on the highest perch right under the lamp and bask for long periods.
If you keep small parrots or maybe even lovebirds and parrotlets in wooden box type breeding cages bird lighting can still be offered. Use a 24” lamp and reflector over a four foot twin. Fit the lamp and reflector to the punch bar centrally. Standard cable ties can be used to secure the lamp and reflector to the bars. This will then provide light and shade in both cages but still only uses one lamp. Please be sure to lower the perches and fit the lamp as far to the top of the cage front as you can. This will then reduce any eye strain risk to the birds. Using the reflector places the light into the cage and also stops unwanted bright light shining into the keeper’s living space.
All lamps have inherent limitations; one of these limitations is the useable lifespan of UV lamps. Although good quality light will still be emitted the UV content of a lamp will have decreased month by month over the life of the tube. It is for this reason that we suggest bird and reptile lamps are replaced yearly.
Being tetrachromatic birds are sensitive to the beats or flicker associated with magnetic control systems (50htz). It is always advised that an electronic controller is used for bird lighting as these controllers provide energy to the lamp that is flicker free (50khtz). Many, many people do use standard magnetic controllers without any issues whatsoever. However we must keep the birds welfare in mind at all times, an electronic system should be used if at all possible.
A properly fitted and effective bird lighting system is a valuable tool to every keeper. Whether you own a pet African Grey parrot or a budgie or you have a whole room dedicated to breeding; bird lighting can still be used very effectively. Not only will your birds be able to make good use of the vitamin D3 production and benefit from the extra calcium absorption that the UVB enables, they will also be able to view the world in a more natural way. You as the keeper will also benefit from these systems by being able to view your birds in a totally new way. You may notice fluorescent patches and colours that you may have never seen before. The effects of the lamps are dramatic and varying; birds should preen safely more readily, moult with less issues, produce more viable chicks and live long happy lives with strong bones. Song birds sing more and parrots seem to scream less it sounds too good to be true!
Bird lighting is not a cure all by far!
The right bird lighting system certainly helps to keep birds in peak condition and reproduce readily but it is only one part of arsenal that we need to perpetuate aviculture. A well thought out and very varied diet is essential for all caged birds. Seeds and green foods, nuts and oils are all essential to this process of causing our captive birds to thrive. Good quality supplements should be offered according to the brands instructions and a calcium source should be available at all times. Nothing can truly replicate the sun, this would be impossible. Bird lighting will help a lot but a fluorescent lamp can never have the power that the sun would provide in the countries of origin. Allow your birds to bask in unfiltered sunlight in the summer as much as possible. A cage is a fairly safe environment but a watchful eye is always needed, whether it is local cats and raptors or thieves there will always be a risk to the bird, but I believe captive birds benefit hugely from natural exposure so if it is safe to do so please let your birds enjoy natural sunlight.
Birds are amazing and deserve the very best care that we can possibly provide. I am certain of one thing, I will never cease to be amazed and mesmerized by these flying miracles.
John Courteney-Smith, Arcadia Reptile Manager ©2012