There is much discussion on the internet about diet and about specialised lighting and its importance for Parrots, often discussed by those who have passionate opinions … but unfortunately little factual knowledge about this subject.
This small detail does not, however, deter them from loudly expressing themselves on the subject. Whenever I read articles such as these, I want to know the credentials of the authors before I am inclined to believe them.
After all, being so-called “published” on the internet takes nothing but an active desire for people to see their name in print. No actual knowledge required.
So let’s clear the air on this one from the start. When it comes to these subjects, I have no credentials at all.
Yes, I am a certified veterinary technician, and yes, I did specialize in the care and nursing of birds and exotic animals for two decades, many years ago … but that only makes me perhaps more knowledgeable than the so-called “average” person; it most definitely does not make me an expert.
So in light of my basic limitations, I would like to share what knowledge I have on these extremely complicated subjects. My writings are never gospel on any subject (even my personal specialty of behaviour) so please feel free to cross-reference my words and discuss them with your experienced avian veterinarian. It would gratify me tremendously for you to do this.
I had originally planned to cover the importance of calcium and specialized lighting in two separate articles, but the two are so intertwined that such a division would be even more confusing than it already is, and that is saying quite a bit.
The Importance of Calcium
I suspect we all know that calcium is an important mineral, though most do not understand the broad nature of its functions in the body. Yes, calcium is important to growing strong bones but calcium has multiple other functions as well, many of which are much too complicated for me to understand fully and then translate into English.
However, I will explain to the best of my ability. As an aside, thanks to extensive research I believe my knowledge is accurate, though extremely shallow compared to the REAL experts.
Most of us have heard of older women taking calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis (condition characterized by decreased bone density and increased fragility). Many of us know older women who have frail bones that easily break (pathologic fractures) if they take a fall.
This condition exists in Parrots as well. For instance, a severely osteoporotic Budgie can hop from its lowest perch to the cage floor (a distance of perhaps a centimetre) and break both legs on impact.
Baby Parrots with insufficient calcium will develop rickets with painful bone deformities, just like malnourished poor children in impoverished Third World countries.
Female birds need calcium with which to make a proper eggshell, and they can get into desperately life-threatening trouble if they continually lay eggs when malnourished. Such a situation is bound to result in osteoporosis with pathological fractures, of course.
But more dangerous are the potentials for egg peritonitis and egg-binding. Egg peritonitis is often the result of a hen’s inability (due to hypocalcaemia or an insufficient level of calcium in the blood) to put a proper eggshell around an egg. This allows the egg’s contents – a gelatinous foreign protein – loose in the peritoneum or lining of the abdomen. This can cause a massive inflammation (indicated by the -itis at the end of the word peritonitis) which often kills.
Egg-binding exemplifies another calcium task – that of assisting in proper nervous system functioning. With low blood calcium levels or hypocalcaemia, the nerve responses in the muscles are not strong enough to allow the hen to actually push out the egg … so she can’t pass it and it remains stuck inside her. (Note: Hypocalcaemia is only one cause for egg-binding, but that’s the subject of this article so I’m sticking to it.)
Another nervous system reaction to hypocalcaemia is seizures. Remember the potentially fatal problem with nursing mother dogs called “Milk Fever” or eclampsia? Milk fever is another manifestation of hypocalcaemia. The malnourished bitch depletes her calcium supply when producing milk for her litter, and the result can be a nervous system reaction characterized by the dog’s stiffened gait, twitchiness and nervousness, and seizures.
One species of Parrot is famous for seizures resulting from abnormally low calcium levels: the African Grey Parrot. (This apparently also happens in raptors [birds of prey], but we won’t get into that.) While the true origins of this syndrome are still the source of heated discussion among scientists, the treatment is calcium and it works.
Diet & the Calcium to Phosphorous Ratio Thing
Calcium and phosphorous are two minerals that work together in an animal’s body to help maintain homeostasis – a state of equilibrium or balance needed to maintain health.
To maintain proper health, the ratio of calcium to phosphorous should be within a range of 1.5:1 to 2:1.
This means that Parrots need about 1½-2 times as much calcium to phosphorous in their diets. So if Parrots eat something high in phosphorous – like seed, for instance, or some of these cooked bean/corn/rice diets sold for pet birds, then you need to counteract the high phosphorous intake by getting your feathered friend to consume 1½ - 2 times as much calcium-rich foods like kale, dandelion, mustard greens and broccoli tops.
Calcium and Phosphorous + Vitamin D3
So, okay, that is the importance of calcium and phosphorus. What’s Vitamin D got to do with it? Vitamin D regulates the absorption of calcium from the gut. So feeding a diet high in calcium does not suffice. If there is insufficient Vitamin D of the proper form (more on that in a second), the animal’s G.I. tract (gastrointestinal tract or gut) cannot absorb it properly. Hence, all that lovely calcium goes right out the other end of the animal without being properly utilized.
But birds (and reptiles also) need a specific form of Vitamin D that is not found in any vegetables or fruits on this planet. The form of Vitamin D they need is Vitamin D3.
And according to Richie, Harrison and Harrison (Avian Medicine: Principles and Application), "Inadequate Vitamin D3 levels in the body can cause calcium deficiency symptoms in an otherwise calcium-adequate diet."
Sources of Vitamin D3 are simple: unfiltered sunlight, specialized lighting, avian vitamin supplements and formulated diets for birds. I’m assuming you already understand the importance of proper avian vitamin (and mineral) supplementation OR the consumption of a good formulated diet for Parrots, so let’s talk about lighting next.
And by the way, that capitalized and underlined “OR” is because experienced avian veterinarians do not generally recommend the use of supplements with a bird that is consuming an adequate volume of a good formulated diet for Parrots.
If a Parrot is consuming a good formulated diet AND you feed supplements, you run the risk of over-dosing a bird. Vitamins and minerals are NOT in the category of a little is good so a lot is better. Indeed, over-supplementation can cause some really awful and sometimes fatal problems, such as calcification of the kidneys and excess bone formation. So don’t do it!
Before I get into this, I would like to state that, thanks to extensive research about lighting, I find myself even more confused than I was before. The topic of specialized lighting is extremely complicated and there is much disagreement as to what is correct and what is not. Much information is anecdotal instead of scientific, and that muddies the waters still further.
As mentioned earlier, one of the sources of Vitamin D3 is unfiltered specialized lighting which produces ultraviolet light. However, several things need to be understood about this subject and this stuff can get really complicated.
First, a so-called “full-spectrum” light does not always produce ultraviolet light. “Full-spectrum’ is not a scientific term, it is a marketing term; hence, manufacturers can define it as they like. On the other hand, “ultraviolet” (UV) is a scientific term. So a UV light produces the entire spectrum of light rays, but a full-spectrum light may not produce UV rays. So check the label and only purchase a light that specifies it produces UV rays.
There are two forms of ultraviolet (UV) light, depending on the wavelength. It comes in UVA and UVB and your Parrot mostly needs UVB. So check the label on that as well.
Second, the concept of “unfiltered” is also crucial. UV light does not penetrate solid things like plastic or glass (except in cases of specially manufactured acrylics which are very expensive).
So your Parrot gets no benefit from sitting by a window on a sunny day. Instead, to get the benefit of full spectrum light as nature makes it, a bird needs to be outside in the sunlight. They cannot be in an acrylic carrier. Instead, they need to be in a wire cage or aviary, or wearing a harness so they don’t accidentally escape. But many of us don’t live in climates that allow being outside year-round, so indoor lighting is necessary.
In addition, a full-spectrum light needs to be within a relatively small distance from the bird, with most requiring a maximum distance of about 45 cm (18 inches). And for obvious reasons, the bulb and its fixture MUST BE secured in such a way that a Parrot can reach neither fixture nor wiring.
UV bulbs also need to be replaced frequently – every 6 -12 months. This is because they start to lose the wavelengths on either end of the spectrum so they lose effectiveness. They still produce light, so you can use them elsewhere in your home, but they no longer function properly for your Parrot. This is a real heart-breaker as UV lights can be extremely expensive.
This specialized lighting only needs to be on the bird likely a maximum of two-four hours daily. Over-exposure can apparently cause damage such as cataracts, just as in humans. It is therefore useful to put these lights on timers if you will be gone all day.
Lastly, not all UV lights are created equal. So carefully check the product labels in the store or talk directly with the company. Most importantly, ask your experienced avian veterinarian for specific recommendations.
Science now knows that many (most?) species of birds, reptiles and insects can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, and that includes our Parrots. So Parrots can see colours that we cannot even imagine.
Some scientists believe that UV vision allows Parrots to SEE feather colours that identify a Parrot’s sex in what we humans perceive as monomorphic, with no colour differences between male and female. (Needless to say, even to the limited human eye, species like the Eclectus Parrot are dimorphic, meaning the males and females do not look alike.)
Indeed, working with an ultraviolet camera, scientists were able to pretty accurately visually sex Blue-Fronted Amazons.
But there is another very important concern, as far as I am concerned. If Parrots can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, does lighting their world with regular light bulbs mean the world looks flat and colourless? Probably not completely, but it makes sense to me that it must cause some sort of visual change or dampening for them. So providing UV lighting likely brightens and colours their world in a manner we cannot even imagine!