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.

Looking at Parrots as People.

Some people ask: ‘Is it harmful to refer to a pet parrot as a fid?’ It falls under the same argument of whether we should treat our birds like kids.

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Fid, or feathered monster?

Yes, there are those who have argued that this term of endearment encourages owners to anthropomorphise their birds – which means we assign human qualities to a non-human creature or object. It’s personification. Anthropomorphising is something to avoid in itself (more on that presently), but does calling your bird a ‘fid,’ or yourself a ‘parront’ really cause issues?

Here is my own take on this whole debate: I personally feel that ‘fid’ is an inoffensive term. It is, however, something I don’t really care for myself. That doesn’t mean I hate it, or want it to go away or anything, and I certainly don’t mind folks comparing their birds to kids – or to themselves as parents. The experience is supposed to be remarkably similar. And as an aside, I haven’t had any little ones myself, but I have it on good authority that parrots are eerily – and permanently – like toddlers.

And I feel thinking that way is harmless enough. It’s a method to get people to relate to a parrot’s sheer neediness and emotional ability. There are lots of times when current owners can use this kind of comparison as an educational tool: For instance, concerning diet, parrots are much like humans in that they get bored easily. You don’t like to eat the same stuff day after day after day – and nor does any bird. It just gets boring. How will most people ‘get’ that best? By relating to their own experiences.

The question ‘How would you feel, if…’ can be a useful tool.

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How might you feel, if confined to a cage all day with nothing to do? (This bird is wonderfully provided for at Edinburgh zoo.)

The danger comes in where owners move beyond merely making a comparison, and instead start to treat their parrots like little people. That can seem easy to do!

But parrots are not little people. They are animals – highly intelligent, amazing, and emotive, but animals none the less. Would it seem odd if you picture sitting a raccoon down at your kitchen table, handing it a spoon, and training it how to eat (whether it actually could is not the object here!)? That’s the same way we should feel about our birds. Parrots function on instinct. When someone looks at it as a child, they impose certain restrictions and expectations on it. A bird must chew – let it chew. A bird must fly – let it fly!

Let our parrots be parrots, as much as we can.

The best way to help captive creatures like this live well-adapted lives is to remember that they are animals. Wild ones. They thrive best in environments where owners acknowledge and provide for this. They need foraging opportunities, time to bathe and time exercise by flying and climbing, plenty of enrichment and good diets, even special perches to mimic nature. We teach our pet parrots how to be by themselves, to do independent things, and do our best to train them to adapt to different situations.

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Build them aviaries, if you can.

Treating your bird like a tiny human – although you might find it cute and charming – places them in a role they can never fulfil: An unrealistic situation. Birds who don’t know they’re birds are more likely to devolve into behavioural issues, like plucking. And they need to know how to survive without you doting on them constantly, in case one day you can’t provide that.

It can also prevent some owners from seeing the true roots of problems, since it’s altogether too easy to imagine them as toddlers with wings. Excessive hormones are common in parrots, yet when you look at a bird as a literal child, can you remember that it is an adult who wants to mate (probably with you) and lay eggs? Or that sometimes your mature cockatoo/macaw/budgie/bird is going to want to munch your fingers off because his territorial instincts are out of control today? Could you remember that the reason he is attacking your family members is because you are his mate, in his eyes, and every day you betray him by touching those other ‘birds’?

This scarlet macaw has stopped eating to assess me, and whether I am a threat. Notice the slight ruffling of feathers at the neck.

This scarlet macaw has stopped eating to assess me, and whether I am a threat. Notice the slight ruffling of feathers at the neck.

Parrots know how to be parrots. It’s what they do best. They don’t know how to be humans, and it’s unfair on them to expect them to be able to. To think of parrots that way can honestly help some people understand that they’re not cage ornaments, but it can lead to some serious expectations that can hurt a relationship with a bird. Don’t set them up to fail.

I myself don’t believe in parrots as pets, but I say it again – captive parrots exist, and they need us. Look at the Island Parrot Sanctuary for proof. Adoption is the way forward if we want to help these amazing creatures. Thankfully, there are endless owners out there willing to surrender themselves completely to avian ownership.

Breed Vs. Species.

What’s the difference between breeds and species? Parrots and other birds have individual species; dogs and cats have breeds within their canine and feline species. But what’s the real definition of the two, and why are parrots referred to as belonging only to a ‘species’? The words ‘breed’ and ‘species’ refer to two different things: Animal husbandry and taxonomy.

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Senegal Parrot (scientific name ‘Poicephalus Senegalus’) forages for his breakfast.

Breeds are different types within a species, specific groups that have a homogenous (same) appearance. This will be the result of specific husbandry – breeding. If you want to consult good old Wikipedia, they write that a breed is not ‘an objective or biologically verifiable classification, but is instead a term of art amongst groups of breeders who share a consensus around what qualities make some members of a given species members of a nameable subset.’

Species refers to a biologically classifiable term, the lowest unit of taxonomic rank.  ‘A species is often defined as an individual belonging to a group of organisms – or the entire group itself – that share common characteristics. [They] are usually capable of mating with one another to produce fertile offspring, or, failing that, (for example, the Liger) it has to be ecologically and recognisably the same.’

A species is given a two-part name: The generic name, and the specific name.

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A Barred Owl is known by the scientific name ‘Strix Varia.’ These are not in the Psittaciforme order.

Taxonomy is just a system to classify where all plants and animals fall within the animal kingdom. You might think of it like a family tree. Here’s a good article from BirdTricks, which shows you how birds are classified by doing so for a Goffin’s Cockatoo.

If you wanted to class a Pacific Parrotlet, then it would look like this:

  • Kingdom:  Animalia.
  • Phylum: Chordata. This group encompasses all vertabrate animals, that is, creatures possessing spinal chords.
  • Class: Aves (AKA ‘bird.’)
  • Order: Psittaciformes. All parrots fall under this order: They are defined by a hooked beak, zygodactyl toes – two toes forward, two toes back, for gripping – and the ability to mimic.
  • Family: Psittacidae.
  • Sub-family: Arini.
  • Genus: Forpus, which is also the most well known genus of parrotlet. It includes all species of parrotlet commonly kept as pets: the Pacific Parrotlet, Mexican Parrotlet, and the Spectacled Parrotlet. A genus refers to a group of birds that have several specific characteristics in common.
  • Species: Coelestis. Take these last two, genus and species, to find the scientific name.
  • (Some birds also have a sub-species.)

On the converse side, dogs have no individual scientific name for their breeds. For example, a German Shepard Dog – also called an Alsatian – and a Welsh Corgie are both Canis lupis familiaris. Same goes for all other dogs. Their breeds are how we differentiate them, but it isn’t scientific.

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German Shepherd Baldur.

Parrots having evolved separately all around the world – like budgerigars in Australia, Pacific Parrotlets from Ecuador, and Congo African Greys in Africa – they need to be classed in their own individual species. These are not breeds. Scientists do this to most accurately try and represent their evolutionary history.

Another good place to go read is here. This will help you understand all of this better.

Now you too can let people know that parrots have species, not breeds – and if you were so inclined, you can classify your own bird too!

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Greenwinged Macaws’ scientific name: ‘ Ara Chloroptera.’