The Importance of Sun to Parrots

Parrots need sunlight. It has been instrumental in the healing of our umbrella cockatoo, Bobo, since he went to live at the Island Parrot Sanctuary in Scotland (and for the mental and physical recovery of all parrots there), and it has helped my birds, too, although they are not emotionally traumatised as Bobo was. If you think about how wild flocks live, and realise that your parrot is just one or two generations removed from that, you’ll see that something critical is missing in their lives. This is part of making sure your pet gets the full range of nutrition he needs.

Without sun, parrots simply cannot absorb everything properly. It is a necessity, as much as fresh fruits and vegetables are in a parrot’s diet.

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UV helps convert a bird onto a good diet of fresh fruits, sprouts, grains, and vegetables.

What is the impact of going without sun?

  • Increased aggression and biting
  • Plucking, barbering,  and other destructive feather habits
  • Malnutrition and calcium deficiencies – Vitamin D, which is gained from the sun, is responsible for the absorption of calcium and other vitamins and minerals; without it, birds don’t get full nutrition
  • Poor feather quality
  • Compromised immune systems
  • Reduced vision – UV light enhances your parrot’s vision, so without it their world is thought to look very grey
  • Increased anxiety and depression (and therefore behaviours like feather picking)
  • Increased screaming
DSC00184

Aviary living gives parrots the sun they need.

What is the solution to getting our parrots enough sunlight?

If at all possible, build an aviary for your birds (carefully researching, of course, what this will require in terms of keeping your bird in one). Aviaries are wonderful enrichment and they give your birds all the light they need to be healthy. They are also becoming more popular!

The effect of aviary living at the Island Parrot Sanctuary is incredible to witness. Figure that a number of those birds come from bad situations. A number more were relinquished because of typical, uncontrollable hormones and the behavioural problems that go with that. Whatever the case, they are allowed to just be birds there, not pets, and are given an incredible diet, sun, and the best of care.

Right away as you enter, you notice that all the sanctuary birds are all stunningly bright. Their colours are vivid. Many of the residents there no longer pluck or feather barber, although some still do and will never stop. They are still affected by hormones, but this is a sad fact of life as a captive animal. The sun lessens it in many birds, and makes it more bearable for all involved.

Scarlet Macaw

One of the stunningly vivid scarlet macaws at the sanctuary

All the parrots at the Island Parrot Sanctuary are happy and healthy. You don’t have to be an animal person to see how truly content they are living that way.

If an aviary is not possible (let’s be honest, not all of us are equipped to pay for and build one, plus not all of us live in a forgiving climate), a UV-A spectrum lamp does wonders. It’s not as good as the sun itself, no, but it is something and it really helps. Your UV lamp should go on one hour after waking up, and one hour before bed. We use an Zoo Med bird lamp for our birds, and the benefits have been pretty much instant:

  1. They eat better (and will try new things)
  2. They sleep better
  3. They bite less
  4. They’re less noisy
  5. Their feathers look more iridescent and bright
  6. In combination with 12-hour sleep schedules and an improved diet, they display less hormonal behavior
  7. They act happier and less depressed

A UV-A supplemental spectrum lamp should be a must for all bird owners! Right now, with a bitter winter and blasting winds, no one is going out. Using the light, Maverick actually tried chop that contained kale, broccoli, red pepper, and carrots (amongst other healthy things). And he liked it. Our Senegal does not care for any of those ingredients, but the lamp allows him to see the lovely colours of his food, making it that much more appealing.

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Mavi eating chop AND sprouts.

My parrotlet, a species notorious for picky eating, has consistently been eating his veggies too. Cue the amazement. He was beak-deep in chop last night and didn’t budge even when I opened his door to swap something around. That has never happened before.

So what does Ultra Violet light do, and what role does it play in our parrots’ health?

It affects their Vitamin D3 synthesis:

Birds are covered in feathers, so their skin can’t simply absorb nutrients from the sun… ‘In most birds, the preen gland collects the precursor D3 from the bloodstream and concentrates it in the gland oils,’ (Arcadia, Lighting for Birds pamphlet). The bird then spreads the oil on its feathers and ingests the UV exposed material when it preens itself again – at that point, the oil enters the body as previtamin D. Finally, the liver and kidney convert this to vitamin D3.

It is a complex and amazing process. As I said above, Vitamin D is responsible for the absorption of many other nutrients into the body.

Birds also perceive light differently to humans, which affects their behaviour and eating habits:

A special gland surrounds a bird’s eye, known as the Harderian Gland. This measures the duration of light – called the photoperiod – and passes the information along to the pineal gland. The pineal gland and the pituitary gland both act as regulators to the endocrine system, and therefore to the entire metabolism of the bird.

Parrots need UV-A light, not UV-B. Too much UV-B can be detrimental to a parrot’s health. Doing some reading on this thanks to a reader’s comment, I see that I have some research to do, as it seems too much UV is just as bad as too little – and is associated with cataracts in captive parrots. Many avian lamps are repackaged reptile lamps, which contain too much UV-B for parrots.

Birds' Arrival 250

Sunlight on our Senegal Parrot’s back.

My own observations:

Since getting my birds their Zoo Med lamp, I have noticed that they go out of their way to sit beneath it, even carrying food up to eat as close as possible (the bulb needs to be kept twelve inches  away for safety). They act happier when the light goes on, and, conversely, sulk a bit when it goes off.

After just a few days out of quarantine and under the lamp, their feathers are brighter and both birds act calmer. Maverick suffers from typical Senegal parrot hormones, which are lessened by spending time under his lamp. As I mentioned, they also eat better – and more of the good stuff – when the light is over their food bowls.

Mavi’s beak was a bit chipped and peeling after quarantine. It’s already looking better after two weeks. One of the Senegals at the sanctuary has a smooth, coal-black beak from the sun. That is my goal.

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Screens and glass filter out most of the UV light. Direct sunlight is critical.

Bobo at the Sanctuary is the biggest example of how CRITICAL sunlight is for our birds. The owner told us – when I said I felt like I’d failed our rescue cockatoo – that it wasn’t our fault. He was an emotionally damaged bird who was also very typical in his behaviour, and his problems were compounded by the lack of sunlight.

Since moving there months ago, Bobo has made leaps and bounds of improvement. I have reports that he is doing incredibly well and is like a different bird. Keep in mind that not so long ago, he bit anything that walked, then tried to mate with them. With breeding season upon us, he still has issues, but he is somewhere safe now, getting what he needs.

The sun is important for our birds.

My parrotlet's immediate reaction to the UV lamp: basking.

Ptak goes out of his way to sit and bask beneath his lamp.

I’ll say it again and again until the message starts to spread even more. All by itself, UV light won’t cure a bird of behavioural or health issues, but it will certainly help in combination with other factors, including diet and training. If you are having difficulties with hormones, biting, and aggression, try sunlight or a bird lamp for a few months (several hours each day) and see what happens. Combined with a fresh food diet, low protein, and plenty of exercise, UV will help a bird feel and look better.

It can take some time to fully see the benefits of using UV light, but it is well worth it.

Sunlight is good for parrots.

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15 thoughts on “The Importance of Sun to Parrots

    • Ha! I’ve often thought maybe I’ll build the birds an aviary, and then I can build a second alongside it… for ME. 😀

    • He is! He loooves his lamp. Doing some reading via your comment below, I can see that I have more research to do. Not sure if the Zoo Med brand is too high in UV-B? It came recommended from multiple sources, including a guy who I generally trust to know his stuff, but I dunno… the side-affects seem to be pretty serious. Thanks for the link!

  1. Zoo Med is the ONLY bird lamp that I could find and it didn’t even come with the bulb. That had to be ordered separately. Mind you, this is not a cheap endeavor, however, it is cheaply made. We have an aviary for our Amazon but live in upstate NY so it is only used during the summer months. We just got the lamp and started using it on Tuesday. Burt has been even louder but it could be due to hormones and other factors. I know it will work over time. I believe it will work from everything that I have read. Thanks for your article.

    • I got a ZooMed lamp from a local shop, who sold us the bulb with it relatively cheaply. We were lucky in that regard. I wish we had an aviary, but I’m in MD – so our weather is often quite similar. I know we’re having a cold freeze yet again.

      The lamp will work wonders! Can’t wait to hear your experiences.

  2. Pingback: What is a Healthy Diet for my Bird? | Students with Birds

  3. Good read. Thank you for sharing. Ive rescued a 15 yr old CAG from deplorable conditions. He plucks. I’ve modified his diet and make sure he has at least 12 hrs outside a week in the California sun/shade. I must admit, I’ve seen an improvement similar to your cockatoo. I refer owners to this site. It has made a difference.

    • Aw, that is wonderful to hear! Thank you for commenting – I think that if more people read others’ accounts of how the sun helps, it will help our birds. Your CAG is a lucky boy!

  4. Very well written & tons of fabulous info! Sunlight is so important to bird owners, I’m always elated to see someone pro-UV lights. Especially when there are those out there who think feeding their flock Vitamin D is enough (it’s not the same or even close, people!).

  5. Hi! sunlight is really important for birds, but I live in England and here in winter we rarely have sunlight. I do not know much about UV lights but I suppose any artificial light will benefit? any lamp light? am I wrong?

    • Hi there – good question! It has to be a UV lamp, unfortunately, (UV-A for parrots), because normal lamps don’t put out these rays. It’s similar to the lamps they use to treat SAD in Alaska and other places where there is very little sun for long periods of time.

      I lived in Scotland for a long time, so can sympathise! We soaked up the sun as best we could, and supplemented with UV bulbs – which (I’m not entirely sure on this one) I believe you can get for ordinary lamps? An ordinary bulb won’t do it, though.

      Hope that helps!

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