All birds require sunlight and fresh air. Birds (an exception is the cave dwelling oil bird from South America with similar habits to a bat) all other birds have a physical requirement for sunlight and fresh air. Fresh air sounds a vague term.
Surely air is the same everywhere indoors or outside provided it’s unpolluted. But this isn’t the case.
The reason we feel more relaxed yet more alert near the sea, close to a waterfall, in mountainous areas or after a thunderstorm, is that sea air, or air adjacent to moving water and in mountainous areas is infused with negative ions molecules that accelerate the absorption of oxygen, and invigorate the immune system that increases the levels of the mood altering chemical serotonin.
Pollution, heating and air conditioning depletes the amount of negative ions in the air. The solution is to regularly open a door or window, and use fans. Air, oxygen is required by all plants and animals. And birds due to their unique respiratory system (birds don’t inhale and exhale like us, air is constantly flowing through a bird’s airways via air sacs, through bones not only lungs.)
They’re also more susceptible to toxins in the air than many animals, (hence the use of Canaries as early warning system to detect gas in coal mines.) But the supreme life force without which there would be no life whatsoever is the hot orange star we glimpse occasionally in the UK, we call the sun.
Most people realise the important role that sunshine plays in our lives. And the effect it has on our moods and our physical well-being. Many people suffer from the seasonal depressive condition known as winter blues, which can have a debilitating effect. Just imagine how Parrots must feel who mainly originate from tropical environments where the sun and light intensity is so much greater than where they now live.
It’s no coincidence that sunlight and physical activity are reduced during the cold seasons. Our ancestors had to conserve energy in winter to keep warm when food was often in short supply. A Parrot can live its life indoors but exposing it to sunlight and fresh air provides it with many advantages.
For Parrots indoors in winter months, florescent lighting can now be purchased. An alternative to time in the sun could be full spectrum lighting.
The use of full spectrum lighting is not covered in this blog but essential information can be found in Northern Parrots archive here.
Importance of fresh air, sunshine and rain
You’ll see evidence of physical and mental benefits when a Parrot is provided with fresh air, sunlight, and rainfall. Aviary birds love to bathe in rain swept bushes. It is after all how most Parrots in the wild bathe, safe from predators.
Parrots in aviaries will often hang excitedly from the aviary wire with their wings open and feathers fluffed up during mild showers.
Yet some people maintain Parrots don’t like to bathe! Don’t believe it, they know what’s good for them. Light rain produces negative ions. Yes, it’s those life enhancing molecules again that enter our bodies invigorate our metabolism and attach them selves to free radicals reducing their harmful effects.
When sunshine comes in direct contact with feathers it is synthesized into Vitamin D, which maintains proper levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood stream. Without Vitamin D, the body does not properly absorb calcium, something that is critical to a Parrot.
A word of caution here, Vitamin D can be added as a supplement and will have been added in various processed foods but too much will cause toxicity which is serious and can be fatal. But there is no reason to provide Vitamin D unless it’s part of veterinary care. Most birds have oil glands. Their own method of self-administering Vitamin D. Not all birds have oil glands however.
They’re absent in Amazon Parrots and Hyacinth Macaws for instance. The oil gland differs between species and even between sexes of birds. Most of the Parrot family do have oil glands and like other bird’s oil glands when preening it produces an oily secretion whose main function is to waterproof feathers. (Water birds have the largest oil (preen) glands.)
The secretion also contains anti bacterial and anti fungal properties which maintain the health of the skin and the wax its composed of provides suppleness to feathers. The preen gland is enlarged during the breeding season, and because the oil is applied to the entire plumage even the head it’s believed it could also play a part in chemical communication between sexes and siblings. But as regards Vitamin D.
Preen oil contains the Vitamin D precursors which when exposed to ultra violet from the sun’s rays (birds often sun bathe after preening) it’s converted into Vitamin D3 and this is ingested.
How much sunlight is the right amount?
Ask around and you’ll find various answers ranging from thirty minutes once a week to twenty minutes three times a week. And of course, aviary birds will be exposed to sunshine whenever the weather permits. No aviary should ever be without a shaded area, leafy branches, or part of the aviary roof covered.
This means that Parrots have choice whether or not they’ll perch in full sun or dappled shade or complete shade. Birds indoors in cages or flights should not be positions where they are totally exposed to the sun's rays and can’t move into shade. Birds close to sunlit windows are sometimes in this vulnerable position.
Methods of providing fresh air and sunshine for pet Parrots
There are various ways to manage this. Harnesses, outdoor cages, outdoor flights, and aviaries. A growing minority of Parrot keepers are also free flying their birds. One common sense solution is to accompany your Parrot outside in fine weather. If you are feeling too hot, so will they.
I had one unsettling experience when visiting a boarding establishment for Parrots and found that the caretaker, who must have done this routinely, had wheeled four cages housing grey Parrots onto a terrace. The birds were exposed to full sunlight, with no shade or shelter, and were clearly uncomfortable.
The caretaker hadn’t even thought to provide shade over part of the cage roof, and what was even more disconcerting, when I suggested providing shade she wouldn’t listen to my advice.
Wild Parrots, the majority of whom live in the tropics - will be exposed to sunlight from sunrise to sunset but the difference is they’re usually in dappled shade perched on a branch so that sun's rays are filtered and intermittent. Placing a pet Parrot in direct sunlight even in the UK sun can be too hot for them.
In the heat of the day, wild Parrots instinctively retreat into shade, and wind down. Their active periods are restricted to early morning and late in the day. Even garrulous birds like Budgerigars desist from chirping when resting during hot periods. Expenditure of energy produces heat.
Birds can easily succumb to heat stroke. Even in Australia where birds have evolved to live on a baking hot continent. High temperatures and lack of shade can cause the death of wild birds that overheat and literally fall from the perch during heat waves.
In Australia during extremely hot weather zookeepers don't enter aviaries in case they disturb birds that are trying to. remain motionless and slow down their metabolism. Taking a pet Parrot out into direct sunlight can be quite stressful for them. Unless it is an outdoor situation in which the Parrot can exercise choice – that’s the advantage of an outdoor flight or aviary.
When the aviary is positioned so that the building receives sunlight and partial shade from trees or roofing, this allows the Parrot to choose how much sun to bask under. If you observe aviary inhabitants carefully over long periods, you’ll see that although individual Parrots may perch on sunlit branches for some time, they mostly perch in dappled shade.
Not that sunshine is something we get in abundance in the UK. But during hot periods the sun is often hotter than in previous years. For instance, June 2021 was the hottest on record.
A bird in the wild has two main periods of high activity, early morning and afternoon when they to forage to various locations for food. This means that they use flight, (the most energy demanding activity a bird undertakes) and climbing skills. They rely on their cognitive skills too.
Food doesn’t come ready mixed in a bowl in the forest. They must learn from their parents and flock mates where to source fruit nuts and seeds. Their brains are used constantly. The modern trend of hiding food and encouraging Parrots to forage is an attempt to replicate and provide the mental exercise they get in the wild.
While we can provide exercise for a companion Parrot, such as foraging toys and a large enough cage layout that encourages activity and plenty of out of cage time, nothing replaces the benefits of fresh air and sunshine.
How sunlight helps increase a Parrot’s overall health:
It encourages strong bones, beaks,
Feather growth is improved. You will notice more shiny feathers
Sunlight aids in feather production.
Sunlight helps the immune system grow strong.
Problems that may arise for lack of sun and light
Sunlight affects a sun-loving creature both physically and emotionally. In Parrots, it is now accepted that a D3 deficiency can also cause depression or anxiety. We know this happens with us. It can happen with Parrots as well.
Taking Parrots outside if you have no aviary
Harness training is an excellent way to take a Parrot outside. Training your bird to wear a harness and taking it for a brief walk a few times a week can be enough to satisfy its needs.
A successfully harness trained bird is also an amiable companion on outings. Parrots who are well socialised enjoy a changing environment instead of the same cage walls.
This is the ultimate in allowing a Parrot access to sun wind and rain. However it is still a minority practice and should never be undertaken lightly and requires careful evaluation that you and your bird are suitable.
My own case history with the outdoors
I was fortunate that the two greys were bred and trained by Barrett Watson so came to me weaned knowing how to step up and used to wearing harnesses.
Since then, I have trained various species in harness and of course with a baby bird it is much easier. It can also be achieved with older birds with time and patience.
The African Greys were accustomed to many outings and showed the variation in their characters. Casper always aloof, Artha delighted to make friends especially with blonde young men.
My original small outdoor flight was gradually transformed into a large aviary with sections containing various species. Bamboo, palms and fir trees are now large and provide perching, sunbathing, roosting branches for various species.
Once the two Macaws were successfully recall trained they often participated in garden activities: tea time (a nuisance); gardening (a worse nuisance); but I feel sure some of our guests came a much for their company as ours.
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