Birds and full spectrum lighting. We got it wrong.

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I was at my first AFA convention last week. It was the 41st annual convention of the American Federation of Agriculture. You’re familiar with the organization – right? Or not so much. Members of the AFA are the unsung heroes helping solve legal, behavioral and nutritional problems if it has anything to do with an exotic bird or parrot .


Earlier this year we talked about how the government wants to outlaw your bird. The folks at the AFA are the people standing up to the government protecting our pet birds. The list of speakers at this year’s convention read like a Who’s Who of the bird world


speaker list at 2015 american federation of Aviculture Convention


We would’ve loved to have taken four days off and participated in all the events and listen to all the speakers but for us much like most of you, time is at a premium. I took in a lot of information but one of the speakers, Josee Birmingham from HARI was particularly engaging.


To clarify – HARI stands for the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute. One of our best selling bird foods is Hagen. Reading about bird food you are about to buy or have been buying, the bird food on our website or even reading the back of a bag while shopping in our Birdie Boutique you’ll get the same information that most every bird food manufacturer provides – ingredients and serving directions. Something about the company like the “how this bird food came to be” story.




But if you want to really know about Hagen bird food and if you’ve ever said to yourself aloud “I’d really like a lot of birds, that way I’ll learn so much,” talk to Josee. She lives at the HARI facility with her husband, two sons and 500 FREAKIN’ BIRDS! The facility has been a hostel to these roughly 500 birds for almost 3 decades. Birds come, birds go, with their long-range purpose as to act as the ultimate quality control inspectors for Hagen bird food


Birds are fed the same batch of say Tropican pellets for 90 days. The birds are weighed and tested on a regular basis and their poop is analyzed. Nothing is untested, nothing is wasted. Would you like to know what they found out about raising parrots? Visit the avian care category on the HARI website.


In that I’d love to be able to provide you with everything you need to know about raising exotic birds in 2000 words or less – every week I can’t. So much like I do with many projects I break things down into small manageable segments.



mirrors may not be your pet bird’s best accessory


Let’s talk about sunlight shall we? One of the more consistent themes on this blog is full-spectrum lighting and vitamin D production. Flocks of bird owners spend hours doing research about birds and lighting. We ship a boatload of full-spectrum lighting. We also get a lot of questions about full-spectrum lighting from people usually armed with a bunch of information from the I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T!


We are constantly asked what is the CRI (color rendition index) of a certain full spectrum bulb or what’s the Kelvin temperature of the bulb? 5000 degrees Kelvin is equivalent to sunlight but not fully unless it has an adequate CRI but I never get the two questions asked together – darn Internet.


Further I keep seeking an answer (science geek wannabe that I am) to the question “what about the distance from the light source? Will the reduction of Lumens due to increasing distances from the light source reduce the ability of the light source to help a bird’s body produce vitamin D?”


Micro science lesson: there is a property of light called the “inverse square law” – if you’re an old guy like me you learned it (because you needed to) when you were shooting your SLR camera with f-i-l-m. Anyone remember “f-stops” & “shutter speeds?”


The inverse square law is a general principle of light, sound, gravity, etc. in which the intensity of energy coming from a given point varies inversely with the square of the distance from that point (Ex: as the distance from a point increases from 1 to 2 to 3 units, the intensity will correspondingly decrease from 1 to 1/4 to 1/9)


Translation: your bird can be getting a thousand lumens of light from that fancy schmancy full spectrum lighting set up on top of the cage when your bird is on its sleeping perch, that is presumably the highest perch in the cage.


Assuming this is a large parrot in a six foot tall bird cage and the bird now craves that piece of an avicake it dropped 2 days ago now wedged in the grate on the floor of the cage. The big bird climbs down to the bottom of the cage and because you’re a great caged bird keeper there all sorts of foraging and enrichment opportunities strategically placed towards and on the bottom of the cage. The bird spends an hour down there foraging, eating and preening – now 6 feet away from the light source meaning he or she is currently getting about 125 lumens of light – from your 1000 lumen bulb – the inverse square law of light in action.


Does anyone really even know what a lumen is or does? For the record a lumen is the “SI unit of luminous flux, equal to the amount of light emitted per second in a unit solid angle of one steradian from a uniform source of one candela”


So that was helpful huh? Still don’t know what they are but somehow you still think you need them – because the Internet said so, or was it Facebook?


BTW for you younguns – Photographic film is a strip or sheet of transparent plastic film base coated on one side with a gelatin emulsion containing microscopically small light-sensitive silver halide crystals. The sizes and other characteristics of the crystals determine the sensitivity, contrast and resolution of the film. 


The emulsion will gradually darken if left exposed to light, but the process is too slow and incomplete to be of any practical use. Instead, a very short exposure to the image formed by a camera lens is used to produce only a very slight chemical change, proportional to the amount of light <<think inverse square law) – absorbed by each crystal. This creates an invisible latent image in the emulsion, which can be chemically developed into a visible photograph.


Or you can use your smart phone – end science lesson.


It seems of late that every concerned cage bird keeper is yakking about Kelvin, lumens, UVA’s, UVB’s, florescent tubes, incandescent lights and LED lighting while chasing the production of vitamin D in their bird, something they’re not even sure the gosh darn bird is deficient in!


Strange things happen when you’re caregiver to 500 birds. You end up learning a lot and you become interesting to other people and organizations like universities. Josee, in conjunction with a local university, decided to test how much UVA/UVB lighting it takes to synthasize vitamin D3 in birds.


Using things like science (which I never argue with) to track precise amounts of UVA and UVB light and then drawing blood on a regular basis from birds who were exposed to these precise amounts of light. The blood was sent to the University who has machines that only universities have that can detect not just vitamin D but vitamin D3 (25-dihydroxycholecalciferol) which is what everybody is seeking.


News flash:


Although full-spectrum lighting with UVA and UVB has shown to be effective in vitamin D production for reptiles (think of a bearded dragon bathing under a basking lamp on a rock for six straight hours 1 foot away) LIGHT HAS ZERO EFFECT ON THE PRODUCTION OF D3 IN BIRDS!


Let me say that again




Researchers are actually finding that too much UVA and UVB can actually burn the retinas in birds and are now recommending no more than 5 hours of light containing UVA and UVB.


Hyacinth Macaw parrot in the shade of palm trees


Observe birds in the wild – they spend much of their time in the shade!


Don’t get me wrong – light is not inherently bad. Patrick R. Thrush talks about light in the NCS Journal July/August 1999, Vol. XVI, No. 4. He succinctly notes that “The vast majority of the lighting we use, bears little similarity to the light of the sun.”


He goes on to say “Birds have a highly developed sense of light. Humans perceive light through our eyes. Our feathered friends have an additional way of interpreting light conditions, a special gland which is on top and behind a birds eye, the pineal gland.


scientific illustration of bird's eye including the pineal gland


The pineal gland is photoreceptive in all non-mammalian vertebrates, but not in mammals. The only non-visual photoreceptors in mammals are intrinsically photosensitive ganglion cells in the retina. The parapineal and similar pineal-associated structures are only found in non-mammalian vertebrates. (The quail’s light-sensing neurons are tucked within the paraventricular organ.)


The iris is intrinsically photo-receptive in non-mammalian vertebrates and perhaps in some mammals. The locations of non-visual photoreceptors (shown in yellow) in the deep brain varies among the non-mammalian vertebrates. (Graphic: Current Biology, I. Provencio)


“A second consideration of sunlight concerns the health of the animal. Ultraviolet radiation works with the natural immune system, strengthening it to protect the bird against pathogens.”


Mr. Thrush eloquently lays out the premises that sunlight has four unique effects on the life of a bird.


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