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The Necessity of Full-Spectrum Lighting

Written by: Terry Beaudoin

Author's Note: This article originally appeared in an addition of the Parrot Island Newsletter from 1996. It contains several revisions and updates making it current through 2001. For upwards of 20 years aviculturists, breeders, and avian veterinarians have recognized the benefits of using specialized lighting over birds that are native to areas of the world that receive huge amounts of the most undiluted sunlight to reach the earth. Because of the benefits I have seen in my own birds and in many customer's birds from the use of full spectrum light, I feel that an article explaining its usage is long overdue. Also I would like to thank Dr. Tammy Jenkins of St. Francis Animal Hospital for being kind enough to offer some insight into the physiological effects of lighting on pet birds.

How does full spectrum light affect pet birds?

Breeders' exotic bird collections and poultry production farms were some of the original places that the use of full spectrum lighting was demonstrated to have a definite positive effect. There were noticeable increases in the amount of offspring produced and in the survival rate of those offspring in facilities that switched to full spectrum lighting - most originally used incandescent or standard fluorescent lights.

Exotic animal veterinarians would see birds and reptiles that exhibited signs of calcium deficiency even though their diet seemed to contain sufficient sources of calcium - one of the most obvious signs was that when x-rays were taken of these animals they would see fractures in their bones. Vitamin D3 is a hormone necessary for animals (and humans) for the digestive tract to be able to extract calcium from their diet. Without sufficient amounts of D3, even large amounts of calcium supplementation will not benefit these animals. On the other hand if there are excessive amounts of D3 in the diet, too much calcium can be taken in, causing calcium deposits on the animals' bones or kidney problems. The correct level of D3 can be very difficult for us to artificially regulate. The greatest benefits of full spectrum lighting are the natural synthesis of D3 in the skin allowing the animal to naturally regulate it, as well as the effect the lighting has on the glandular system of the animal.

The thyroid and pineal glands as well as the hypothalamus control many of the most important functions in a birds system. The thyroid gland (Dr. Jenkins referred to it as the 'Master Gland') controls how and when the other glands function - for it to function properly it needs to be stimulated by normal photo periods of full spectrum light. The hypothalamus is involved in proper feather development in birds. If there are problems with the hypothalamus (hyper- or hypothyroidism) poor feather condition as well as skin (epithelial tissue) disorders usually occur. The pineal gland controls the cyclical processes in birds, such as molting and the reproductive cycle. The pineal gland is kept 'on track' by the animal being exposed to proper amounts of full spectrum light.

What is full spectrum light?

Full spectrum light is the name we give to the light produced by the sun after it passes through the earth's atmosphere. In the tropics (where most pet birds originate) the sun's light reaches the earth in its most undiluted form. In captivity we use various fluorescent lights to try to reproduce sunlight as closely as possible. The parts of sunlight we are most interested in reproducing are in the ultraviolet spectrum - in particular UV A and UV B light.

The Color Rendering Index (CRI) is a scale developed to rate how closely an artificial light compares to natural sunlight at high noon. High noon sunlight is assigned a value of 100. No artificial light source attains a CRI of 100. Sunlight that passes through your homes windows has upward of 90% of the beneficial UV spectrum filtered out by that glass. Studies have even shown that 30% or more can be filtered out by the aluminum screening used in many homes. High-grade acrylic (like that used in our acrylic cages filters out 5% or less of the UV light).

How We Recommend Using Full spectrum Lighting.

These lights should be placed three feet or closer to the bird. At beyond three feet of distance, the effects of the bulb are greatly lessened. The use of a timer or a strict schedule is recommended since having these lights go on or off at even slightly different times of the day could cause potential reproductive behaviors in your bird, such as territorial aggression or egg laying. Both of these behaviors are best avoided with our companion birds. We wish to use this lighting for a duration just long enough for the proper assimilation of nutrients, but not so long as to potentially cause problems. We suggest different amounts of time for these lights to be on based on the species of bird for which it is being used.

These recommended times have lessened over the past three years. The following schedule is based on a conversation with Dr. Tammy Jenkins in November 2000. Most smaller birds (cockatiels, parakeets, lovebirds, canaries, finches, one to two hours per day maximum.

Most African Parrots (Greys, Poicephalus, and Vasa Parrots), Eclectus and Cockatoos: four to six ours per day maximum.

All other birds (including all South American Parrots): two to four hours per day maximum. Because natural sunlight is the best source of full spectrum light we also recommend taking your bird safely outside as much as possible - see our safety articles or ask us about the safest way to do this. The physiologic and psychologic benefits of full or partial direct sunlight cannot be underestimated. Full spectrum lighting and a place near a window will certainly improve life for most caged birds, but neither can compare with a few hours spent outdoors in a bird safe and secure environment. A healthy, robust bird is far more adaptable to moderate outdoor temperatures than the drafty room myth would have us believe.

Author's Note: With the development of full spectrum lighting that can be used in a standard household lamp fixture as opposed to the 'shop light' fixtures necessary in the past - the average pet bird owner can easily use full spectrum lighting with their pet.

August 2022
Note by FaeryBee August 2022

It has been indicated by an avian veterinarian that the ZooMed Avian Bulb is safe to use IF the directions are followed.

Additional information: Full Spectrum Lighting is not necessary for your birds IF you ensure they are getting enough Vitamin D3 through their diet and/or supplements.
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