Part 5

Natural light and good health

Part 5 / Issue 269

Parrot Magazine / June 2020

Natural light and good health

In this final Part 5 of his light series, John Courteney-Smith explains how full-spectrum+UV-B light plays a vital part in achieving good health and, perhaps, offers a solution to feather plucking

Birds, as with all life, have an intricate and rather wonderful relationship with light, or rather the energy that is contained within light. Light, as you may remember from the preceding four parts of this review series, impacts life, sustains life and maintains intricate and complex mechanisms within the body. Some of these processes lead to essential vitamin production and the assimilation, storage and use of the earth’s minerals. Yes, it is the full spectrum of terrestrial daylight that not only allows life
to exist, but it also creates our weather, generates our magnetic fields and controls the very action of our oceans.

Yes, the sun is the apex provider, a force of unimaginable power and one that must be understood, utilised and respected. Light, from any source of projection is ‘energy/fuel’, be that from a candle, LED, fluorescent lamp or the sun. Countless billions of photons travelling within their own colour and carrying their own level of energy.

A natural, lower stress life

Birds, as with all species have developed to use this energy in miraculous ways, to both warm their bodies, to visualise almost unimaginable colours, and to provide for their core biological functions. All of this is intertwined within the three parameters of overall-nutrition. These are all developed uses, therefore, to be able to provide for our captive birds in the correct way, we must also allow them to experience and to use the energy fields that exist around them in the wild state as being replicated in captivity. If we do this correctly, we allow them a higher level of function, help to protect them from avoidable diseases and allow them to live a more natural, lower stress life, when compared to birds that have no access to the full-spectrum of terrestrial light.

In this 5th and final part of this review series, I thought that it may be an idea to republish a real life question that came in to me from a concerned bird keeper and, of course, my reply. I have expanded slightly within the text as the process of helping this keeper, eventually equated to multiple emails and phone calls. So, I have tried to sum up the overall advice for this case coherently for this publication.

It is vital that we provide ethical and effective care for all of our pets, regardless of species. As such, my advice is always given with the proviso that the advice of an experienced vet is sought alongside any adjustments to
lighting and dietary provision that are made. I have long experience with these issues, but I do not have x-ray eyes nor blood testing fingertips, we must use formal diagnostics alongside husbandry changes. There are many causes of stress and ill health in parrots, as such, we must work religiously to both discuss and eliminate each potential cause until we find the correct answer, and we need the amazing skills of a vet to help us do this.

My Parrot 20 plus year old Macaw has been plucking on and off over the past couple of years. We also moved house a couple of years ago. The cage has been placed close to a window facing west, as-such the bird has access to plenty of sunlight. Do you think a Full-Spectrum light might help reduce plucking if I put one over the cage?

I am sorry to hear of the issues that you are having with your macaw. These things are most concerning, indeed they are worrying for both the keeper and for the bird. Plucking very rarely has a single cause. A lack of exposure to the full-spectrum of unfiltered natural daylight is indeed linked to both poor feather health, poor quality preening oil and in some cases, plucking, which can, over time, become habit forming. A lack of access to natural unfiltered daylight can also lead to a lack of natural Vitamin D3 and then subsequently the inhibited assimilation, storage and use of essential earth minerals such as calcium.

I am sorry to hear of the issues that you are having with your macaw. These things are most concerning, indeed they are worrying for both the keeper and for the bird. Plucking very rarely has a single cause. A lack of exposure to the full-spectrum of unfiltered natural daylight is indeed linked to both poor feather health, poor quality preening oil and in some cases, plucking, which can, over time, become habit forming. A lack of access to natural unfiltered daylight can also lead to a lack of natural Vitamin D3 and then subsequently the inhibited assimilation, storage and use of essential earth minerals such as calcium.

This type of unnatural behaviour can be an outward sign of an internal imbalance in the bone, blood and/or brain. The conditions linked to a lack of usable D3 and stored earth minerals are, if left untreated, ever progressing over a long period of time and towards the family of conditions that we call ‘MBD’ (metabolic bone disorder). A lack of access to unfiltered natural daylight for ‘in the home’ birds will not be helping the situation, we can be quite sure of that. However, it may not be the sole cause of the conditions that you describe. As such, it is vital that the help of an experienced avian vet is sought and maintained all through the birds’ prospective recovery. Certain formal disease tests will need to be undertaken and everyday frustrations such as mites eliminated. You may also need to think about cage design and position, toy availability and also reducing any ‘stressors’ that may be impacting the bird while it is in this more fragile state.

Stressors impacting the bird’s life have a very real effect on overall wellness. Stress/fear leads in the short term to the release of the hormone cortisol. This is a natural response to stress causing the ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanisms built into life. These exist in order to remove the animal/bird from the risk of harm/predation. In the short term, this serves a valid purpose. However, when the stressors are frequent or protracted, the production of cortisol continues in an unnatural fashion. The ‘stress’ itself will negatively impact the bird, but so also will cortisol itself, being most troublesome to the function of the body when present over long periods. Stress is a killer, we all know this, as such, we should do all that we can to remove it from our lives, and the lives of our pets.

Risk of serious localised overheating

Placing a bird close to a window can be a positive thing in terms of brain stimulation through the provision of quantity of light (lux) and by helping to set natural circadian rhythm. However, you will need to monitor and regulate the ambient temperatures found around the cage, this is most important. Glass is very good at allowing certain wavelengths of infra-red through, this then acts as a greenhouse around the bird and greatly increases the risk of serious localised overheating. Thermal stress is also a killer as we have seen with dogs left in cars on hot days. The same applies for our birds, especially when in a restricted environment.

There is also another important issue here as almost all forms of glass and plastic are 100 per cent UV protected. Placing a bird near a window will not allow for the creation and self-regulation of vitamin D3, nor will it activate the full range of natural avian colour vision. As such, and due to this filtering of light, placing a bird next to a window, unless open onto the cage, has no positive health-giving benefits at all other than the activation of the eye/ brain through quantity of light and circadian rhythm.

Exposing birds of any species to the full-spectrum of unfiltered terrestrial daylight, or a lamp that eplicates such energy, from UV-B to IR-B is wholly natural and very beneficial to life. It is light (a provider of energy, fuelling countless natural biological processes) within the natural wavelengths that birds have developed to ‘use’ and ‘live within’ in the wild state over vast periods of time. Therefore, there will be ‘uses for’ and ‘levels of protection against’ such energy for every species and within every habitat type. Exposure to UV-B, among providing for many other iological processes, allows the creation of vitamin D3 within the body (The D3 cycle). D3 is not only the catalyst to mineral assimilation, storage and use, but it is also key for maintaining and allowing nerve, brain and vital organ function. D3 is also used within muscle growth, repair and contraction. Exposure to UV-A self-regulates the production, storage and recycling of D3 and also activates natural colour vision in the birds highly adapted eyes.

Macaws have developed to live within and to also use the rather high levels of sunlight that occur in the wild habitat. You will note that they are diurnal, spending long periods foraging and travelling in the open sky and ainforest. They have also developed bare face patches as can be clearly seen, one reason for this we think is to allow the bird easy exposure to sunlight, the related conures and of course the African Grey Parrot are very similar in this regard. We may then surmise that their requirement for exposure to sunlight is higher than some other species and that the evelopment of the bare face allows this. We have also seen that wild birds self-supplement with earth minerals in the form of grits and soils. Macaws, of course, are noted for the large scale ingestion of mineral rich clays. This geophagy not only settles and protects the gut, but it is a core and potent provider of the full-spectrum of the earths minerals, provided in balance and at regular intervals. This all points to a bird with a high need for D3 and for having regular doses of minerals. In balance, these provide for the whole body, from blood to bone and in every single biological process and cycle.

We must understand that it is the full-spectrum of terrestrial daylight, that is the suns projection after the filtering of our layers of atmosphere that has become the provider to all life, the most bioavailable source. This encompasses all of the terrestrial wavelengths between UV-B and IR-B directly, but then also IR-C through natural secondary convection. It is this vast energy source that life has developed towards, indeed, to use in order to thrive in the wild. Therefore, this is the ultimate supplier.

We can take this a step even further of course as each species has developed over vast time within slightly different quantities of energy. Indeed, some species are almost arid within their scrubland habitats and some live in dense jungles. Each using light to provide for the same processes, but each in their own way. This does mean that we have to use the limitations and outputs of each lamp knowingly in order to provide for each species in the right way and within a quantity of energy that is usable by the bird.

The sun remains the ultimate provider! We should not shy away from this fact. However, good quality pecialist lamps are now very good indeed, being very closely matched to the groups of wavelengths that allow for the reation, storage, use and recycling of D3 (the D3 action spectrum). In this way, for those of us that use the convenience nd security of the birdroom, or have a beloved household pet, or do not live in the luxury of year round sun, it means that e do have a safe and effective method of providing essential energy from light to captive breeders and pets. These being pecialist lamps that have been designed to project both and colour and spectrum of light in the most natural way and include adequate levels of UV.

Plucking its feathers in desperation

If a bird perceives that it has a lack of D3 and subsequently minerals, it may start to remove feathers in order to expose a greater surface area of skin to allow more light (inc UV) into the dermis. They do this initially we think, to try and balance the blood chemistry and find a sense of order within their ody. It is quite amazing really. If they can get more sunlight in, they can make more D3 and if they have enough D3, they can assimilate, store and use the full spectrum of earth minerals. It is rather like a human removing a T shirt in the sun to get a tan, but for them it is desperation of impending decreasing health, rather than our vanity. This is core self-preservation, nature causing limited harm in the short term in order to ensure adequate provision in the long term.

However, if the bird does not have access to UV it cannot create, store and use D3 which then means that mineral stores will continue to deplete as they are used every day. Yes, without adequate D3, any minerals provided in the diet will continue to pass directly through the body largely unused. This is the start of the downward spiral into poor physical and mental health that so many parrots/ birds have endured over the years. A chronic lack of D3 can also instigate a sort of madness if left untreated, the bird may never recover and feather removal becomes habitual.

If we include terrestrial UV over the living space of the bird in a safe and measured way, and we start to look at the diet, whilst including natural fullspectrum minerals the bird’s blood should start to re-balance as D3 levels rise. In many cases we see a reduction in plucking, feather regrowth and in some amazing cases birds stopping plucking totally forever

Magnesium is vital

A brief word on Magnesium here. Yes, it is the whole spectrum of earth minerals that are important to health. However, it is bioavailable calcium
and phosphorous that are required in natural balance to form strong bones. Magnesium plays a vital role here also, magnesium is vital to life in its own right but it also acts like a sentinel to calcium, directing its molecules to be stored deep in the bones first. For calcium to be naturally bioavailable it must be stored in the bones and then sent back out through the blood. Without adequate magnesium and especially where synthetic oral D3 is used, calcium can become lost in the body, being stored in deep tissue and clogging up organs where it should not be. Magnesium stops this. Therefore, we now view Magnesium as being as important to the ineral cycles as D3, Ca and P.

From my experience, if we catch this type of behaviour early, provide a dedicated full-spectrum+UV-B fluorescent bird lamp properly and include a atural full-spectrum mineral alongside a calcium and magnesium powder, positive results can be seen fairly quickly. Once again, a well-planned recovery should be undertaken alongside the watchful eye of your vet. Try and reduce stressors around the bird, assess the diet to be sure that the bird is receiving the correct utrition for its own species and instigate routine spray down times during the day. This will encourage useful preening, which We must allow an animal to use its natural processes as it has developed to use them. This means getting minerals deep into bone first, from which they can be sent back out around the body via the blood in the most bioavailable routes. To ensure this we must ensure optimal D3 and supply adequate Magnesium in the diet will also become a source of natural oral D3 after the preening gland has been exposed to UV. What we seek is balanced UV provision leading to D3 production, storage of minerals and increased feather health. What we need is healthy preening without plucking. Spend some time where the bird is situated to be sure that there is not a predator outside of the window that routinely arrives to frighten the bird.

Provide plenty of water

Feed and hydrate the bird well. Many keepers do not provide anywhere near enough water, or provide it in the wrong way. Yes, birds will drink from a water dish, as they will drink from streams and puddles in the wild. They will also increase hydration through drinking rain droplets and inhaling water vapour. Fine mist spray and even cloud misting in the evening can be very positive for increasing positive hydration and feather health. We must also factor in the vital importance of fresh foods. I am no fan of pellets being used as a sole diet, nor am I a fan of seed only diets. Both can be used to help create a full and varied wild-like diet and so they should, but we cannot beat both the active nutrition contained within fresh fruits and vegetables nor their ability to increase nutrient positive hydration. A balance should be sought, a balance that is gleaned from investigating and safely implementing an effective replicant of the wild diet.

We aim to provide fullspectrum+ UV-B bird lighting for a full photoperiod each day of 10-12 hours of illumination. Seasonality can be factored in if required of course, especially for breeding birds. Choose a lamp that is able to provide for the needs of your species and within the distance that the lamp will be
installed above the bird. Typically, full-spectrum+UV-B lamps made for birds should be fitted safely between 12-15” above the birds head when it is seated on the topmost perch. I suggest that you invest in a 54w HO-T5 Bird lamp and ProT5 fitting. This will provide a wide area of light able to cover the whole bird whilst still allowing a natural provision of shade around the cage for self-regulation. Lamp guards can be purchased to help negate damage to the lamp and fitting and
to protect the bird from harm. Choose lamp technology that is digital/electronic, which will ensure that the lamp is producing light that is flicker free. Change UV producing bird lamps as per manufacturers’ advice, for Arcadia, this is once every 12 months to be sure of optimal UV projection.

This, alongside safe and managed access to natural daylight outside in the garden when warm enough to do so, will help to provide for your bird. Your vet will monitor D3 and calcium levels through blood testing, which we should start to see increase. We should then start to see the bird cease feather removal. Over my time helping keepers with installing quality full-spectrum+UV-B bird lighting and adjusting the diet, I have seen roughly eight birds in ten see a elcome level of recovery.