UV Lighting

Natural sunlight is one of the three natural elements necessary for life.  We all provide our Parrots with fresh water, clean air and a few hours of natural sunlight every day, right?  Most of us do not have ample opportunity to get our Parrots out to enjoy the natural sunlight.  Placing your Parrot next to a window does not count since most of the ultraviolet A (UVA) and all of the beneficial ultraviolet B (UVB) rays in natural sunlight are filtered out by the glass.

Why is natural sunlight so important? 

Exposure to natural sunlight enhances the capacity to deliver oxygen to tissues of the body, similar to exercise. This is particularly beneficial for Parrots whose ability to exercise is reduced due to being caged for most of the day.

Natural sunlight increases the production of lymphocytes, or white blood cells, which play a major role in defending the body against infections.  Natural sunlight also kills bacteria and can help disinfect and heal wounds in addition to reducing fungal infections of the skin.

Natural sunlight is also known to regulate hormones through the Harderian Gland located around the retina that communicates with the Pineal Gland and Pituitary Gland to assist birds in navigating and regulate breeding cycles.  Regulating hormones by using supplemental light with a timer will benefit a Parrot that constantly lays eggs by eliminating the breeding season.

The ultraviolet rays of natural sunlight is important for the mental and physical wellbeing of our Parrots.  It enables Vitamin D to be synthesized which is estimated to affects 10 per cent of all genes and in addition to enhancing one’s mood, it is known to reduce the risk of certain cancers, reduce blood pressure and improve cognitive function. 

Vitamin D and Calcium

The UVB spectrum in natural sunlight converts good cholesterol into pre-Vitamin D compounds, which are further synthesized into beneficial Vitamin D.  With most Parrots, pre-Vitamin D compounds are released with the oil of the preening gland, which they spread over their body while preening their feathers. With exposure to UVB rays, the secretions are converted to Vitamin D3, which is then ingested with subsequent preening.  Like all lifeforms, Parrots also produce Vitamin D3 within their body.

Vitamin D is necessary for the intestinal absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate and zinc.   Although formulated diets will have supplemental Vitamin D3 that is said to be 60% to 70% efficient, it is one of the vitamins that can build up toxicity, whereas a vitamin precursor cannot.  Very few foods contain Vitamin D3 and birds do not respond well to dietary Vitamin D2 (1), thus synthesis of Vitamin D through preening is important for keeping our Parrots healthy.  You can feed your Parrot the best diet including calcium fortified pellets but if they are not getting daily exposure to UV lighting the absorption of critical components necessary in their diet will be limited.  Hypocalcaemia, the term for calcium deficiency, is all too common among Parrots.

African Grey Parrots appear to have a particularly high demand for Calcium.  There are different theories on why this may be.  African Grey Parrots are indigenous to central and eastern Africa and live in open forest with low shade where they are exposed to very high levels of UV light.  As a result they may have evolved to withstand high levels of radiation and, like people who relocate to northern regions, require supplementation.    

Calcium is required for proper muscle function and hormone balance.  The release of neurotransmitters in the brain is calcium-dependent.  Low calcium levels in blood can cause heart disorders and reveal signs ranging from slight muscle weakness where the Parrot has difficulty climbing around its cage, progressing through more marked lack of coordination and loss of balance, nervousness, trembling, or seizures similar to an epileptic fit.  Feather plucking is often attributed to low calcium levels however; the many other benefits of natural sunlight such as regulating hormones and improving mental well being that also have a positive effect on pluckers.

Supplemental Lighting – The Technical Stuff

There are many choices of full spectrum lighting available.  It is important to know that a full spectrum light by definition does not include ultraviolet (UV) rays.  Even full spectrum lights that state they have ultraviolet rays may have too little or too much.  

Full spectrum light-emitting diodes (LED) lights are a very poor choice as they do not project UVA or UVB and offer no health benefit.  Although they are not as bright as the sun, they do pose a risk to the avian eye if not properly lensed.    

The only means to obtain sufficient UV rays is with phosphor coated fluorescent lamps or bulbs.  Very few manufacturers provide the UV ratio however; the normal ratio of a quality lamp is 10-15% UVA and 2-10% UVB.  The proper balance for Parrots is 12% UVA and 2.4% UVB (2).  This range is relatively the same UV ratio as natural sunlight.  As noted above, a full spectrum light by definition does not include ultraviolet rays and the same can be true with many “full spectrum” fluorescent lamps on the market.  When searching for a proper full spectrum lamp you also need to ensure that it is between 5000 to 5800 Kelvin and greater than 92 CRI (colour rendition index).  Anything higher than 5800 Kelvin can be harmful to Parrots.  We see many different “bird” lights being sold, but ultimately the only way you know for sure that you have a lamp with the correct ratio of UVA/UVB rays is by testing it with a UV meter or using lamps with a manufacturer's guarantee.

UVB light is quite weak and does not emit far from the artificial source, therefore your Parrot needs to be within 10 to 12 inches of the lamps to benefit (2).  Safely position the lamps within this range based on where your Parrot spends most of its time.

The UVA/UVB production in fluorescent lamps has a limited life, although the lamp will continue to produce visible light for several years.  Most lamps will reduce to 80% UVA/UVB effectiveness after the first year of use.  Once the lamp reaches approximately 80% effectiveness, the phosphors diminish quickly.  For this reason the lamp should be tested for UVA/UVB or replaced annually.

How much supplemental lighting is required?

Unfortunately, there is no scientific information to answer this question for Parrots.  I have read veterinarian recommendations from 15 minutes to 8 hours with nothing to substantiate either length of time.  With the information we know about humans’ requirements and tropical birds’ natural environment, we can estimate how much natural sunlight is right for your Parrot.

The average human requires about 10 to 15 minutes of natural sunlight daily in their native environment to reap the benefits.  People native to a tropical climate and relocate to a northern climate require up to six times that amount.  Similarly we can estimate that tropical birds require about the same amount of natural sunlight daily, that is; approximately an hour to an hour and a half.  John Courteney-Smith of Arcadia Products recommends closer to six hours daily with a period of “down time”.

Parrots, in their natural habitat, are exposed to direct sunlight in the morning, while foraging for food and frolicking with their mate or siblings, and again during the late afternoon before they head back to their roosting spot. They take shelter from the intense sun for several hours beginning in the early afternoon.  You will notice your own Parrots tend to slow down and may even nap mid-afternoon. 

Is there a downside to supplemental lighting?

The newer ballasts that regulated the flow of electricity to the fluorescent lamp or bulb are electronic.  Electronic equipment emit an electomagnetic field (EMF) beyond the fixture.  The range of EMF from compact fluorescent can be as far as two meters.  There are many negative side effects of EMF being identified by scientists and for this reason we recommend limiting the use of a fluorescent lamp to two hours a day. 

Summary

●  Natural ultraviolet sunlight is as important for our Parrots as food and water and directly influences Vitamin D3 production, vision, feeding, behaviour and breeding,
●  Windows filter out most UVA and all the beneficial UVB,
●  UVA is believed to maintain healthy brain function as well as activates tetrachromatic vision (four channels of colour information),
●  UVB is essential for the production of Vitamin D3 necessary for Calcium absorption,
●  Many full spectrum lamps including all LED lights do not provide the required UVA / UVB for Parrots,
●  Calcium deficiency, particularly with African Greys, is all too common among Parrots,
●  The use of a timer can help regulate hormonal periods or breeding seasons,
●  A full spectrum ultraviolet lamp must be within 10 to 18 inches of where your Parrot perches,
●  Replace lamps annually. 

If we still have not convinced you of the benefits of full spectrum UV light, then just remember how great you felt the last time you vacationed in a tropical climate.  That is how your Parrots should always feel.

Take advantage of our BLOG sale of 15% off all lighting products using coupon BLOGUV15 at checkout or bring a printed COUPON with you on your next visit to the store.  Sales ends January 15, 2016.

Sources:
(1)   Clinical Avian Medicine, Volume 1, Chapter 5 Calcium Metabolism by Michael Stanford, BVSc, MRCVS
(2)   Getting the most out of UV lighting, John Courteney-Smith, http://www.arcadia-bird.com/uv-lighting/

        UVB requirements of an African Grey, John Courteney-Smith, http://www.arcadia-bird.com/uvb-african-grey/
        Parrots Magazine Issue 215, UV Lighting – new tech, limitations and actions by John Courteney-Smith
        
Hypocalcemia in Birds, Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P., http://www.exoticpetvet.net/
        Dirty Electricity, Dr. Magda Havas, PhD, http://www.magdahavas.com/category/electrosmog-exposure/dirty-electricity-electrosmog-exposure/ 
        Wikipedia Molecular Neuroscience, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_neuroscience#Neurotransmitter_release_is_calcium-dependent