Most veterinarians agree that good light and adequate sleep are just as vital to your pet bird's physical and mental well-being as their food, cage or playtime.
"I commonly see pet birds with feather problems like plucking, other behavior problems or reproductive issues that improve just by adjusting their light exposure, or by providing them adequate darkness at night,” said Heidi Aguiar Licata, DVM, an exotic pet veterinarian based in West Henrietta, N.Y.
Getting enough natural sunlight or full-spectrum light benefits birds in a variety of ways, Licata said. For starters, the UVB rays in natural sunlight assist in the conversion of vitamin D3, which is necessary to metabolize calcium needed for strong bones and proper egg formation. It can also boost feather quality.
"Daily exposure to natural or full-spectrum light helps maintain healthy bones, organs, feathers and overall well-being,” Licata said.
Plus, it just makes birds happy.
"Whenever I install a full-spectrum light, the birds love it,” said Paul Lewis, owner of the Birds Unlimited store in Webster, N.Y., an independent avian specialty shop. "They go right up to it, hold their wings out — they can’t get enough of it.”
Too little light however, impedes the conversion of Vitamin D3, thus interfering with calcium intake. Without enough calcium, birds may develop bone disease, renal disease and so on. And while vitamin D3 can be supplemented through a bird’s diet, it may or may not be enough — the research just doesn’t say.
Of course, too much light exposure — whether natural or artificial — can be troublesome too, as it mimics the extended daylight hours of summertime. For some species, like canaries or cockatiels, this can trigger the breeding cycle, leading to chronic egg laying or hormonal imbalances.
"If you’re subjecting a bird to 16, 17 hours of light a day, that will trigger their gonads to go into reproductive mode,” Lewis said, "which you may or may not want.”
Just like their owners, pet birds need their beauty sleep. A birds’ nighttime exposure is equally important as their photoperiod (or exposure to light), as it encourages them to sleep.
"Birds do require a period of darkness and quiet,” Licata said. "This lets the bird unwind, rest and recuperate from a busy day of eating, vocalizing and playing.”
Without enough nighttime hours, birds may develop symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as sluggishness or chronic fatigue. This can depress their immune system and lead to chronic illness.
Plus, just as you get cranky without enough sleep, so too do birds, often exhibiting stress behaviors, such as biting, picking, beak grinding or even screaming. [Some birds, like cockatiels and cockatoos, grind their beaks when content. Confirm with your avian vet if beak grinding is normal for your species. — Eds.]
"If birds aren’t provided with adequate darkness and quiet time, behavior and reproductive problems may be the result,” Licata said.
Exactly how much light and dark time birds require, however, isn’t set in stone. It can vary depending on species and origin, even what season of year it is.
But a good rule of thumb is 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, Licata said. "It’s a broad suggestion,” she added. "More specific guidelines can be tailored by mimicking the light/dark cycles that occur naturally in their native parts of the world.”
That means if your bird hails from the equatorial region, say an Amazon parrot, she’ll probably need close to 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness a day. A bird from a more temperate region, however, may need a more seasonal sleep cycle, moving from 14 hours of darkness in the winter to 10 hours in the summer.
Not everybody agrees on the necessity of a strict schedule, however. "I’m not a big proponent of the idea that birds must get exactly 10 to 12 hours a night [of darkness] for best behavior,” Lewis said. "If you have a well-trained bird, he’s going to be well-trained, whether he gets six hours a night or 16.”
What Lewis and Licata do agree on, however, is that pet birds generally crave some exposure to natural light every day. That means going outside. Plunking their cage by a window isn’t good enough, since most house windows are treated to prevent UV rays from coming through the glass.
"My general recommendation is to provide birds with at least 30 minutes of direct, full-spectrum light daily,” Licata said. "Natural sunlight is best.”
But what if you live in an area where the skies are perpetually gray? "A cloudy day once in awhile isn’t a concern,” Licata said. "However, in areas where there are long weeks without direct natural sunlight, artificial lighting should be considered.”
Many specialty pet stores sell the full-spectrum lights that emit the UV rays that incandescent and fluorescent bulbs don’t.
"All bulbs are not created equal,” Licata warned. "Do your homework before purchasing a bulb for your pet. Consult an avian veterinarian or reputable product supplier if you need assistance.”
Ten hours a night might sound like a good goal, but it’s not always convenient. Many pet owners often have to work long after nightfall, especially in the winter. By the time you get home, it may be dark and your bird may already be asleep.
Luckily, however, a bird’s dark time doesn’t necessarily need to fall during actual night hours. As long as they get enough sleep, you can adjust your bird’s schedule earlier or later to ensure you two have enough quality time.
To control a bird’s sleep schedule, use a cage cover to blot out any natural or ambient light, especially if you keep your cage in a high-traffic area. Cage covers don’t have to be fancy — towels or sheets work fine.
You can also use light timers, room-darkening blinds or drapes to control how much light your birds get. Some newer blinds can be put on a timer, so they’ll open and close whenever you wish.
It also may help to place your pet in a quiet, dark room, such as a closet. This particularly helps for parrots that have acute vision and hearing, or cockatiels, which are prone to "night frights.”
Night frights are violent, thrashing episodes that occur when a bird is startled out of sleep. "Sometimes night frights occur when there are noises or stimuli from people or other animals when the bird should be sleeping,” Licata said.
Complete darkness isn’t necessary to prevent night frights, Lewis said.
"Sometimes cockatiels appreciate a hall light, night light or an aquarium light. That way, if they get spooked off their perch, they can get back up and situated.”
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