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
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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.

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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.

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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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Chop-Chop: Get cooking for Parrots

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Chop for parrots is the easiest method of introducing picky eaters to new, healthy foods.

Chop for parrots is simpler than you ever imagined. It is even faster and easier than grain bakes. I, too, am a chop convert.

The concept: All you do is put ingredients into a food processer and press the button to grind it up finely enough that the flock can’t pick bits out.  I first learnt about chop through the Parrot’s Pantry on Facebook some time ago, and again, later, through Parrot Nation. I’d experimented a little with making it by hand, without much luck. Then my parrots came home from quarantine, and magic – that food processor made all the difference.

My success in getting them to eat it involved four major factors:

  1. Tasting it  in front of them
  2. Placing it beneath a UV lamp (so they could see the colour)
  3. Serving it at a time when they were hungry – which happened to be at dinner, after having removed their lunch bowls
  4. Persistence
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Your eyes do not deceive: this is a photo of a parrotlet eating chop.

Chop is a miracle food. It gets vegetables into otherwise finicky eaters. My two super picky parrots will gladly tuck into a bowl of it. It’s freezable (and using ice cube trays makes preparing it extra simple), and you can store it for several months that way. Each day as you need some, simply take out a baggie and thaw overnight. Heat it up for 8 seconds or so in the microwave before serving, and there you have it. Fresh food on the go.

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Finished chop – batch A.

I judge the success of a meal by two factors: How quiet they go, and whether they look up as I work in their cages or move about the room. I am filled with joy when I prepare them a meal that holds their attention entirely like that.

TIP: Instead of adding all the ingredients, I like to make a chop ‘base,’  which I freeze or store on its own. My base involves maybe 8/12 of the ingredients I intend to add (I’ll give you an example recipe below). As the days go on, I can individually dice, slice, or mash different ingredients in, spicing it up and adding a little variety.

My flock are like most birds – they don’t like the same thing multiple times in a row, and will refuse it after more than twice. By leaving out some of the ingredients and adding them in fresh the day of, I make sure the chop stays exciting to them.

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The taste-tester.

Chop for parrots is a concept, which is what makes it so brilliant – but also intimidating for those who have never tried it before. There are no set recipes. Just ideas. As with a grain bake, you can customise it so your parrot gets whatever it needs or likes most at the time. Vitamin A deficient? Add some pumpkin or baked sweet potatoes. Does your parrot hate, broccoli, and red pepper, etc.? Mix those ingredients in with some of his or her favourites, and some will end up getting eaten.

What goes into chop for parrots? Answer: Just about any bird-safe food that can be ground up in a food processor. I store it unfrozen in the fridge for up to four days.

TIP: Fruits and watery vegetables (such as zucchini or cucumber) are not ideal for freezing. They can make your chop watery when you thaw. These are the kinds of things I like to leave out of my ‘base’ and add in later. Some also recommend cutting these by hand and adding them to your freezable mixture, so that it doesn’t water it down. Keep it dry!

Here are the ingredients I used in today’s big (1 gallon) batch of chop. Call it a recipe if you will:

  • Kale
  • Swiss Chard
  • Dandelion greens
  • Red Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • 1 cup fresh sprouts
  • 1/2 red pepper
  • 3 small sweet potatoes, baked
  • 1/2 green pepper
  • 5 orange and yellow mini bell peppers
  • 3 Carrots
  • Half a jalapeño pepper – including seeds
  • Half an apple, cored
  • 1/4 Butternut squash, baked
  • Handful of sugar snap peas
  • 3 tsp Hemp seed
  • 3 tsp Flax seed
  • 1/2 cup boiled quinoa
  • Handful of oatmeal

That was my base. I chucked in some of everything – a lot of people add in tons of fruits and vegetables, a ‘whatever is in the fridge and pantry’ kind of deal to use up ingredients. As each day goes by, I add one or two extra ingredients to the individual bowls. For example, day 1: Diced strawberry. Day 2: Lemon slices and blackberry. Day 3: Hard-boiled egg. Day 4: Yellow squash. Day 5: Chopped zucchini and a spice.

Many days, I’ll add in a different spices to the individual bowls (not the whole batch). I’ve been known to use cinnamon, small amounts of mint, basil, or hot pepper flakes, for example, to make the meal taste entirely different to the previous serving.

TIP: I mix hemp seed into the chop to get my parrotlet to try it, as it is healthy (in moderation) and he is mad about it. As the days pass, I lessen the amount of shelled hemp going in, but still leave the tiniest bit on top and mixed throughout. As he tries to pick it out, he ends up eating more than he plans. Eventually, this has resulted in him just eating the chop! You can do this with any favourite food.

Whip up a batch of chop tonight using whatever parrot safe foods are in the house. As a guideline, the following foods and herbs are off-limits:

  • Avacado
  • Chocolate
  • Rhubarb
  • Alcohol, caffeine, or soda
  • Sugar and salt
  • Fatty and/or processed foods
  • Nutmeg
  • Peanuts
  • Raw onion and garlic
  • Fruit pits and seeds (apple, peach, pear, apricot, cherry, plum, etc.)
  • Raw honey

To be used sparingly – the following foods are okay in moderation, but many people choose not to feed these:

  • Asparagus
  • Eggplant
  • Cabbage
  • Small amounts of cooked onion or garlic (really small!)

If you’re stuck on what to put into your first batch of chop, you can get a few ideas below. Think about colour. Green and red and yellow and orange – this makes a meal interesting. What do you like to cook with, eat, or feed yourself? Choose some green veggies, some orange, some yellow. There is no limit to what can go into your chop.

  • Kale, spinach, broccoli, mustard greens, cilantro, bok choy, red lettuce, watercress, collard greens, radish and radish tops, carrot tops, endive, beets and beet tops, turnip, parsnip, rutabaga, Romaine, Swiss Chard, zucchini, winter, summer, yellow, or butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, sprouts, bell peppers, hot peppers, grains like quinoa, barley, oatmeal, and wild rice, cooked beans, whole-grain cooked pasta, fruits like apple or pear, etc., etc.

Thank you to Parrot Nation Blog and the folks at the Parrot’s Pantry – my picky parrots eat wonderfully thanks to you!

Twelve Foods that Can Be Foraging Toys All By Themselves.

Foraging for parrots doesn’t have to be hard or take a lot of thought. One of the simplest ways to create a foraging ‘situation’ is to wrap food up in little paper wrappers. But there are some fabulous foods that are toys all on their own – and this really is foraging for parrots made simple.

  1. Whole lettuce heads: while iceberg lettuce itself isn’t nutritionally very good, it does secrete a white sap substance where broken or cut, as does Romaine lettuce. This miracle sap has a calming effect on parrots, which, used carefully can let a frustrated bird take out its frustrations and at the same time make it sleepy. With these, you can also tuck things in the leaves.
  2. Coconuts: whole coconuts make a great toy for large and small parrots, although this can be messy. You can hammer a small hole in these and drain the coconut milk, if you want, although parrots can safely drink it. Coconut is a popular toy.
  3. Broccoli: a superfood, this green vegetable can be stuck whole and uncooked on a stainless steel skewer and left to eat and shred.
  4. Pomegranate: cut this tasty fruit and half and let your bird do all the hard work. Warning – it’s messy, but highly amusing!
  5. Peas in the pod: let the peas warm to room temp, and these make a fine foraging toy.
  6. Corn on the cob: boil this for 8-10 minutes and let cool, skewer on bird-safe skewer, and this becomes a fabulous foraging toy. Can also be served raw.
  7. Bell peppers and mini bell peppers: hollow these out and you have the perfect edible dish.
  8. Pumpkin: bake one of these and you have another edible dish that also happens to be a source of vitamin A.
  9. Bananas in the skin: for smaller birds, try cutting the banana into thirds and giving just one piece.
  10. Nuts in the shell (NOT peanuts): give a nut or two occasionally, still in-shell. This doesn’t work for training, but as a basic foraging toy, it works amazingly.
  11. Brussels Sprouts still on the stalk: these are best fed in moderation, but parrots love to pull them apart.
  12. Cucumber: skewer this on your stainless-steel bird skewer, and watch them rip it into pieces.

Note: Fresh fruit and vegetables should always be washed carefully first, before serving, as pesticides can be lethal to pet birds. Try using white vinegar in a bowl or skin full of water, soaking for ten minutes, and then rinsing thoroughly. Buy organic if possible, and always wash!

The whole fruits and vegetables mentioned are great for doves and finches as well – our canary particularly loves broccoli, corn, and lettuce. Apples are not on this list because the seeds contain traces of cyanide, which, if ingested, can build up in a bird’s system.

How To Make A Grain Bake for Parrots.

I have a tendency to procrastinate until I have no reason left to do so, and this extends to projects for the birds. Birdie bread (aka a grain bake) has been on my to-do list for awhile now, but I am notoriously bad at cooking. Seriously, I once blew up a bag of microwave popcorn, and it got caught between the bars of the rack. Yeah. But I finally got around to attempting this.

Part of the problem was, I was intimidated by the lack of how-to’s. It’s a concept. It’s meant to be flexible, easily customisable. You can make it with your bird’s favourite foods, with new and exotic ingredients, or you can simply use up whatever’s in your pantry. Because it has no set recipe, you can play with the nutrition. Butternut squash and pumpkin for vitamin A; kale for calcium; blueberries for antioxidants, and so on. Beans, spices, grains, vegetables, fruit, you name it and it can pretty much go in. All of this, however, means that the first time you try it, you’ll have no clue what you’re doing.

(Note that avacado, chocolate, alcohol, and fatty/sugary/salty foods should never be fed to a parrot.)

Once you realise that a parrot grain bake pretty much involves chucking ingredients into a greased pan, well, this will become a staple of your household. It’s basically a birdie casserole! It’s fast, simple, and birds tends to love it on the first try. You can even freeze it in ziplock baggies for later use.

For Christmas this year, I made a whole load of grain bakes, bagged them up, and gave them with little ‘how to’ note cards to all my friends with pet parrots.

Here’s how I did my most recent bake, based on instructions from the Parrot’s Pantry, on Facebook, and Parrot Nation. This just happens to be my masterpiece creation. 😉

Savoury Grain Bake for Parrots with Cilantro Leaves and Red Pepper Seasoning:

Ingredients:

1.5 cups Quinoa                                       1/2 cup Mung Beans

1/2 cup Lentils                                       1/2 cup Black Beans

1/4 cup Wild Rice                                  1/2 cup Old-fashioned oatmeal

1/2 cup Whole-grain couscous        1 cup Butternut Squash, cubed

1/2 cup Whole-grain pasta                 Sprinkling of walnuts, chopped

Dash of Cilantro leaves                         Dash of red pepper flakes

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Directions:

  • Grease any pan lightly with olive oil.
  • Combine ingredients in pan.
  • Mix it all up.
  • Cover with water. (The pan should be no more than 3/4 full, as this will swell!)
  • Bake at 350F for one hour.
  • If more time is needed, add more water and bake an additional 20 minutes.

TIP: Small beans should go into the bake uncooked, but large beans should soak for 6-8 hours, and then be boiled 15 minutes or so before going in. Everything else… toss it in uncooked. It will do all it needs to do in the oven.

Bag it up, mark down the date and what it is, and freeze. To thaw, leave out over night, and try microwaving 15-30 seconds to warm before serving. (Just check to make sure it won’t burn your bird!)

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So go, now that you no longer have my excuse of having no starting place! Go and bake delicious things and drop a comment letting us know how your birds like it, and what you used.