full spectrum lighting | BirdTricks | Parrot Training Blog

Calcium Deficiency: A Big Problem For Parrots

 October 26th, 2014
Posted By:
Camelot macaw

Camelot macaw

I rely heavily on my bird’s healthy diet. It has taken years to get some of my more difficult birds to eat the foods I want them to with consistency. However, it has proven to be the most worthwhile effort I have ever put into my birds. I have always firmly believed that proper diet will maintain the appropriate balance for a healthy bird. A good diet is the first line of defense against disease of any type.

However, I am not a fan of using dietary supplementation. Several years ago, when I was inquiring about supplementation for my birds, an avian vet told me that if I knew what was in most commercial supplements, I would never consider using them. Following that statement, the research I did on the topic showed me that many of the available supplements were not just ineffective in enhancing health, the ingredients were, in themselves, unhealthy.

Calcium supplementation is the one exception I make. This is because even with the best diet possible, there are other factors that interfere with a bird’s ability to absorb the calcium from their diet.

Sun conures

Sun conures

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a webinar with renowned avian veterinarian and researcher Scott Echols reviewing his progress on a groundbreaking project involving 3D imaging of parrot anatomy. It is technology that will be game changing for the avian sciences. In the webinar, bone density became a topic.

In an x-ray image, what shows up most vividly are those body parts which are most dense. That is why bones are very bright and the soft tissue around them is a faint outline by comparison. Dr. Echols showed several images of birds with frighteningly low bone density. It has been haunting me since the webinar.

Low bone density is very prevalent among not only captive birds, but all captive animals. An obvious concern is brittle bones, but calcium deficiency is especially worrisome for a species that lays eggs as they are made up almost entirely of calcium. When the body doesn’t have an adequate calcium supply, the shells can be soft and poorly formed and may not be easily expelled. Egg binding is likely and yolk peritonitis resulting from a broken unpassed egg is often fatal.

Blue fronted amazon

Blue fronted amazon

Most people think of a calcium deficiency as being a purely dietary issue. In fact, lack of sunlight is the main problem. Wild birds are exposed to the UV rays of the sun on a daily basis. This spectrum of light interacts with the oils that have been dispersed throughout their feathers during preening and causes their body to manufacture vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 plays a very big role in the body’s ability to absorb calcium from the diet.

So the equation is this: sunlight provides D3. D3 helps the body take in calcium. When you take away sunlight, calcium levels are affected and bone density drops.

For those of us with captive birds this remains an ongoing challenge. Many of us are not able to build outdoor aviaries and smaller cages that can be wheeled outside offer little protection from a determined predator are generally unsafe for that reason.

There are a few alternatives, however:

  • Harness train your bird – Recent research shows that as little as 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight, twice a week, can make measurable differences in your parrot’s health. This can be accomplished with a walk through your neighborhood with your harnessed bird on your shoulder.
  • Full spectrum lighting – FSL is not perfect, but is the best alternative for many people. Be sure to use bulbs that are intended for avian use – not reptiles. THIS is the bulb that I use the most, but they are all very similar in output and most other brands will also suffice. The bulb will start to lose effectiveness after about 6 months so be sure to replace it often.
  • Add D3 to the diet – vitamin D3 is mainly manufactured by the body and is available through very few food sources, most of which are not an acceptable part of the avian diet – such as dairy products. But it is found in canned tuna and salmon which can be safely worked into the diet. You can give a tablespoon to medium and large birds, 1 teaspoon to small birds, of either fish twice a week. Be sure to chose only fish packed in water with no salt added.
  • Calcium supplementation – Add a cuttlebone or calcium perch to the cage. The birds need all the help they can get.
Cooking for Parrots - nutrition course and cookbook set

Cooking for Parrots – nutrition course and cookbook set

The Benefits Of Sunshine For Parrots

 March 5th, 2013
Posted By:

Thank you AZParrots for this picture

I have done a post or two on this topic in the past but think it’s important enough to re-visit it from time to time. Please take the time to read this to learn, or give yourself a reminder, about the many benefits of sunshine for parrots.

Companion parrots have a very different lifestyle from those of their wild cousins. As much as we try to provide them with a great diet and an active environment, there are few alternatives available for captive parrots that offer the same health benefits as life in the wild.

An active companion parrot expends only about 50% of the energy that a wild birds does. Part of that is due to the “room service” style meals that they are served every day. A wild bird spends the majority of its time foraging in various locations for meals requiring that they use their flight and climbing skills constantly throughout the day.

While there are alternate ways to provide exercise for a companion parrot, such as foraging toys and a cage layout that encourages activity, there is little to replace the benefits of fresh air and sunshine. Sunlight has a vital part in the overall health of a parrot:

  • It produces strong bones, beaks, and aids in feather production.
  • It builds the immune system and minimizes the chances of developing certain cancers.
  • It kills germs and bacteria on the feathers and skin (and it has been recently discovered that direct sunlight kills the deadly PDD virus on surfaces.)
  • It enhances a bird’s vision.

Its most important function for a bird is that it helps its body produce vitamin D3. While preening, a parrot pinches the uropygial gland, or preen gland, at the base of its body just above the tail. It excretes an oil which is spread throughout the feathers keeping them waterproof and well-conditioned. When sunlight touches the feathers of a bird, it interacts with the oil causing the body to synthesize vitamin D3.

Vitamin D3 plays a large role in a bird’s ability to absorb the calcium from its diet. A lack of sunlight, therefore, can result in more than a single vitamin deficiency in the same way a poor diet can.

Vitamin D3 is the only vitamin that can be manufactured by the body, and only after exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Other vitamins come from food or supplement sources. Unfortunately, there are very few food sources that provide adequate amounts of D3 and, with the exception of certain fish types, they are mostly fortified foods. The solution to this vitamin deficiency is not dietary, a very rare exception.

Blue fronted amazon

Sunlight has a dramatic affect the body both physically and emotionally. You may have noticed that, during the winter months, many people complain of feeling tired and overwhelmed. Some people blame it on holiday stress. While the holidays certainly can be stressful, winter is a time when most people are more frequently indoors more due to the weather – perhaps a resulting vitamin D3 deficiency is to blame for the unsettling feelings.

In our parrots, a D3 deficiency can also cause depression or anxiety. Behavior and mood can be affected causing a bird to be intolerant and quick to bite.

Many people do not have the resources for outdoor aviaries for either spatial or financial reasons. While it isn’t always safe or practical to roll an indoor cage outside, as few as 20 minutes of direct exposure to the sun three times per week is adequate. Training your bird to wear a harness and taking it for a brief walk a few times a week can be enough to satisfy it needs.

An alternative to time in the sun is full spectrum lighting, which requires very little effort and expense for a bird owner. Full spectrum lighting, which replicates the UV band of natural sunlight, can be purchased at most pet stores and is very effective. Be sure to purchase lighting that is intended for birds and not reptiles as the requirements for each species is different.

While full spectrum lighting doesn’t have all the same properties and benefits of natural sunlight, it will certainly enhance your parrots health and appearance.

Safe Use Of Full Spectrum Lighting

 December 9th, 2010
Posted By:

Military macaw

I did a post about a year ago on full spectrum lighting.  Since that time, some new information and findings have been brought forward. We are continually learning that our human solutions to our bird’s problems are not always right on the money the first time around. This information is important to be aware of when we are choosing lighting and its positioning.  Following are the best parts of a very helpful and informative thread I read on one of the many great bird boards out there in response to a member’s question:

Poster on Macaw Talk bird forum:

“I moved my fids to another part of my house for the winter. It is a little on the dark side. So… I decided to get some full spectrum lighting lamps, which I did. They are gooseneck lamps about 5′ tall and I have them mounted over their cages. The lights end up being about 6-8″ above the top of the cages, and shine down directly over the cage. No loose cords or anything they can bite etc. I made sure that everything is very safe. The spot light is certainly on them. I find the lights very bright even though they are only 27 watts, and they don’t get very warm at all. But…. when should I turn them on and how long do I need to have them on for them.

I turned them on this morning, and found that they became very screamy and squawky, I only had them on for about 1 hour, and turned them off. My hubby wants me to find out more before we leave them on for any extended time. thanks for all your help…J”

Cages By Design

Response From Len, Macaw Talk Moderator:

“This is a subject still hotly debated. The intensity of light falls off inversely with the square of the distance from the source. In short, it looses power rapidly as you move from the bulb. In order for it to be effective in helping the bird’s body manufacture Vitamin D it has to be close, within a few inches. Often close enough that it becomes a hazard to beaks and toes. Even disallowing that they are like the UV tubes used in tanning beds. You’ll notice salons change their bulbs every few months. This is because while the visible light output doesn’t change significantly in only 3 months, the UV output falls off rapidly and drastically..and that’s the portion of the spectrum responsible for Vit D production. Notice also, that salons make you wear blinders when that close to UV light. There have been repeated reports of bird developing cataracts and blindness after prolonged exposure to full spectrum light. My PERSONAL opinion as the risks outweigh the potential benefits. Instead I would opt for full spectrum florescent or daylight type florescent lights like shop lights, several feet above the cages. they can be timed to coincide with dawn and dusk for the psychological effect. Vitamin D can be had in a good, well rounded diet.”

Response from original poster:

“Thanks!!  Below is what I bought – to me it looks like florescent light and bright white actually a little on the glare side than my regular house lamps, I have never used a tanning booth but I believe that light is on the blue side?

“high-tech 27-watt bulb, with a C.R.I.(Color Rendering Index) of 80-85, gives as much light as an ordinary 150-watt bulb
bulb can last up to 5000 hours, 5x longer than other bulbs- for years of normal use
The Kelvin temperature is 6500K
The bulb gives off 1300 LUMENS
simulates outdoor sunlight, which is balanced across the entire spectrum of color visible to the human ”

IYHO, do you think I should send them back? I of course do not want to do any harm to my fids…. Thanks”

Blue throated macaw

Sandy, Macaw Talk Admin:

“All I can add are Kudo’s to Lens post. I have heard for years that the light source needed to be within 6” to do any good. Results, birds with cataracts as Len mentioned.

When we used them in the garage after just moving up here and housed the birds inside as it was winter we put them up. However, it was on the ceiling in fixtures which was about 3-5 feet above the cages.

I also did open the garage doors (large door and side) for most of the day for light, and a good air change. The lights were on timers.

I have read that after a few months that the UV as Len stated is diminished greatly. However, I know myself and others used them much longer than a couple of months and all was fine. Diet? I do not know. I do know that if in doubt I would mount them on the ceiling where the birds are not under a spot light and make them more easily to get out of when needed.

I know that Don has said that he uses them. I know him well enough to know that he explored all the avenues quite well before purchase.”


“Those sound like “daylight” replacement bulbs, not actually “full spectrum” (full spectrum includes UV, virtually invisible to the naked eye). Frequencies approaching UV are in the blue/violet visible range, hence the tendency to think of “seeing” UV as blue/violet. If possible, I’d either back them off a bit or use them as indirect light, bounced off a white ceiling. Technically speaking, daylight is around 5500K (Kelvin). The common practice is for monitors to be calibrated to something approaching 6500K for a brighter blue-white look (which tends to screw us all up when trying to visually color correct digital images). That the birds seem more agitated than normal may be a reaction to the light actually being bluer than anything they’re likely to experience in nature. Plus, they don’t see the same spectrum we do so they may well be seeing things totally differently further contributing to their unrest.”

Hyacinth macaw

As I mentioned, this is all up to date info from people who have immense knowledge about parrots and are very active in the avian community. I trust their opinions without hesitation.

This post is NOT intended to scare you away from using full spectrum lighting around your bird’s cage.  Instead, it is meant to help you to consider better bulbs and safer positioning of the lamps you use.  As mentioned, this and natural lighting are responsible for the production of vitamin D in the body, which directly affects calcium absorption.  Without it, a bird is deficient in that area.

Further, this is yet another reason to try to get our birds as much natural sunlight as we can.  That is the best solution to any lighting problems we might have. I know that not everyone can provide an outdoor aviary for their birds, but just 20 minutes of natural sunlight a few times a week is enough to keep your bird healthy and in good feather.

Why Proper Lighting Is Important For Our Indoor Birds

 May 10th, 2009
Posted By:

Umbrella Cockatoo

Natural sunlight varies as seasons progress and ebb.  It is the intensity and duration of light that tells a bird that it is breeding season, and when to molt – it regulates it’s cyclical clock and adjusts metabolism. Ultraviolet light strengthens the immune system and works with the glandular system in the synthesis of vitamin D, which through a series of processes, increases calcium absorption.  This means healthier and stronger bones and beaks, and improved feather production.  Additionally, a bird’s vision and perception is dramatically enhanced.  Our parrots can see into the near ultraviolet range. This gives them the ability to, for instance, to see colors that we cannot, and to see things from a different perspective than we do.  In the wild, it is how they select mates and identify other flock members, and predators.  It assists in their search for food. Have you ever been outside with your parrot, when she suddenly cocks her head to the side and stares upward in horror at something that is a mere black speck in the sky to you?  She has likely identified a hawk.

Umbrella Cockatoo

Birds love the sunshine. Linus would spend all day outdoors if he could.

Natural sunlight is the best thing for our parrots. But it is impractical (and often unsafe) to roll their cages outside each day to give them this advantage.  Being in tuned with the seasons makes for a more psychologically well-balanced bird.  The health benefits are many. As 90% of the sun’s beneficial near ultraviolet rays are filtered out through modern window glass (even aluminum screening will filter out 30% or more), simply placing the cage by the window is ineffective. The next best thing we can offer as an alternative is full spectrum (FS) lighting in our indoor cage areas.

What is FS (full spectrum) lighting?

Full spectrum is a term that is used in the marketing of bulbs that replicate natural sunlight.  It radiates near ultraviolet light that, while not equal in quality to sunlight, it is the best artificial light that we have at this time and is very effective.

Where can I buy these bulbs and which ones are the best?

FS bulbs are available in many pet stores and online.  They come in two varieties: tubes that vary in length (like the ones you might have at work and bulbs like the high-efficiency bulbs we have at home (the curly ones).  The tube bulbs require fixtures that hold those particular bulbs in a length equal to the length of the bulb you are purchasing (usually 24″ or 48″) and the screw in bulbs will fit into any regular lamp base.

Some brand names are Vita Lite, Chroma, BioLight and Lumichrome.  The bulbs, to be effective,  should have a CRI (color rendition index) of 90 or more, and a color temperature of 5000k or more. Be sure to get bulbs specified for avian use.  Reptile have different lighting requirements.  Logic tells me that the tube bulbs would distribute light more broadly and would be a better choice.  If you elect to go with the screw in bulbs, I would consider using two of them.

If you get a parrot cage by cages by design, their cages come with full spectrum lighting.

Where do I place the lighting in the room and how long do I keep it on?

To maximize the benefits of FS lighting, the bulbs need to be placed about 12″ to 18″ from the cage. The heat generated by these bulbs is minimal and it won’t cause overheating. Try to place them over the top of the cage (if there’s a tray covering the top, you can either remove it or angle the light in from the highest possible point). Since we are trying to duplicate nature, shoot for high-noon.  Put the lights on a timer that will turn them on at sunrise and off at sunset, or as close to that as you can to work within your schedule.  Remember to adjust the timer to mimic the seasonal sun.

Umbrella Cockatoo

As I was doing research for this, I learned that my own lighting system is inadequate in one room. I need to add at least two more light sources to fully cover the needs of all the cages.  Hopefully, one day, I will have the outdoor aviaries I’ve always dreamed about and FS lighting will no longer be an issue.