What factors affect the lifespan of parrots?

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One day I’ll stop apologizing for stepping on toes. Although I have great respect for my esteemed associate who answered this question previously (on Quora)  I have a totally different point of view.

The most influential factor in determining the lifespan of any companion bird in captivity, in and of itself – is daylight and the daily duration of light vs darkness.

50 million years of hard wiring for an animal to believe that he or she can go where they want anytime changes the moment they occupy a bird cage.

Unfortunately many captive birds do die of malnutrition. Many captive bird owners mistakenly believe that human food in the form of something called “chop” can replace commercial bird food that has been researched and produced under exacting conditions for dozens of years. There is also a misconception about seed diets. According to Mark Hagen, the creator of Hagen bird food who has a Masters Degree in agriculture.

The most dramatic nutrient problem with seed based diets is not their deficiencies, which can be met with supplements, but their excesses of fat which can not be removed prior to feeding. Fat levels in the three most commonly eaten seed kernels are so high that these seeds are referred to as “oilseeds”.

Although safflower is a smaller and less palatable oilseed than sunflower, its fat content is, in fact, higher than sunflower. All birds may not like the bitter taste of safflower and thus tend to eat a larger variety of seeds when eating a diet based on it. Read more here

Withholding seeds from a bird deprives them of the texture they enjoy on their tongue as well as different tastes. We talk about  foraging and enrichment which I’ll get to in a moment, but without providing large seeds and nuts to an African grey parrot, or parrots in general, the birds are missing out on doing natural tasks like cracking the shell on a hazelnut.

Now let’s circle back to nutrition. The majority of experts are great proponents of a pelleted diet, Something that supposedly will extend a bird’s life expectancy.  Full transparency,  I am an internet retailer bird supplies (we sell no livestock just the supplies).

We offer 26 brands of bird food all for captive birds and for 15 years I have been reading labels while entering them into the internet (our website) so I’m familiar with the ingredients of not only the commercial bird foods that we sell but our competitors and the ones we don’t sell, for reasons of Our Own.

Naming Harrisons & Kaytee in the same sentence is like comparing aged Prime beef versus taco meat. That said, Harrison’s contains toasted soybeans. Soy Has been shown to be a plucking trigger and plucking is a common behavior found in African grey parrots.

That  is why we sell 26 brands of bird food which still really isn’t enough because we have to satisfy the dietary requirements of close to 700 + species of captive birds many with unique digestive systems.

Most Captive Bird Keepers neglect to offer the birds food with an enrichment delivery system.  Birds are hardwired to work for food.  You can change food a dozen times but it all looks the same to them.  Many birds when offered unlimited food in an exposed bird food dish versus food that is much more difficult to get to will select higher levels of difficulty to feed themselves –  because they are birds.

Let’s shift gears and talk about lighting. EVERYONE gets lighting wrong.  I will debate anyone publicly on this subject be it a behaviorist or a veterinarian.  No one takes into account when talking about lighting two issues that are at the core of captive bird care.

The Inverse Square law of light (an absolute physics law) and circadian rhythms. Let’s start with the inverse Square law which I write about in detail here Let’s say you have two 25 watt fluorescent tubes in the ceiling emitting a combined 3000 lumens over a bird cage.

If the ceiling is 8 feet tall and the cage is six feet tall here’s the math: 3000 lumens are emitted at the source which is the ceiling. 1 foot away, halfway between the ceiling and the cage, it is receiving 1500 lumens. The Top of the cage at six feet is receiving 375 lumens and one foot down from the top of the cage, 3 feet from the ceiling the bird is receiving about 94 lumens of the original 3000 lumens coming from the ceiling.

Moral of the story, to get any sort of benefit it is important have lighting no more than a foot but closer to, 6 inches above the cage. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. We sell a full spectrum light bulb for as little as $10 that feels great to the birds.  They do not emit UVA or UVB. We’ll sell you a full spectrum bulb with UVA and UVB for about $22 but the addition of UVA and UVB is not going to improve your bird’s quality of life nor is it going to help your bird produce more vitamin D.

We get a lot of phone calls asking about Full Spectrum Lighting because they want to help their  bird and improve their vitamin D. My first question is always “How do you know your bird is vitamin D deficient? Have you had a full blood screen work up that indicates any vitamin deficiencies because if you have not you’re only guessing. If you want to improve vitamin deficiencies it’s best to do it nutritionally.”

Let’s talk about that circadian rhythm thing.  This just blows me away because nobody talks about how Captive Bird Keepers will spend thousands to get the bird to stop plucking. They will whine about their bird screaming,  but they won’t spend $10 on a timer to emulate equatorial light cycles.

Birds lighting should be direct and top of their cages attached to a timer. Our bird cage lights come on at 8:20 in the morning regardless of daylight savings time which we do not respect.  That indicates to them the day has started. The budgies rarely come out of the cage but our Senegal is out most of the day. She’s returned to the Bird cage five or ten minutes before the light goes out on top of her cage signaling to her the precise end of day.

Without providing these light signals to our birds they may molt and get hormonal, at arbitrary times.  Without consistent light cycles they are confused and very stressed out which can lower the life expectancy of an African grey or any captive bird for that matter.

Many of you may have heard of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a human depression related to the change in seasons nd usually happens starting in fall running through winter. Treatment for SAD can include light therapy (phototherapy) according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s a real disorder.

Why then do we assume our birds with a much greater sensitivity to light are immune to some sort of avian SAD? The fact is they are not! If we get our birds light cycles in order other positive behaviors will begin to fall into place.

If you want to learn more about the science of The bird of time: cognition and the avian biological (circadian) clock click here

The temperature of a parrot’s physical environment is important but doesn’t need to be overstated.  We live in an 1800 square foot apartment with a nine and a half foot ceilings meaning that the furnace has to heat more than 17000 cubic feet.  

We choose to keep the thermostat set to 65 in the winter but all the birds have heated thermal perches and or heated cage panels as well as oil-filled electric radiator heaters next to each bird cage providing necessary warm year-round. Heat the cage not the home.

Generally speaking if you are warm your parrots are warm and if you are cold your parrots are cold  which makes your bird’s comfort zone easy to determine.

In summation, it’s important to look at any bird’s environment holistically. Meaning: nutrition – cage environment – lighting/light cycles – out of the cage environment – clipped or flighted – training  – sexuality – species – foraging/enrichment opportunities – exercise – frequency of bathing – other feathered flock members – human flock members.

You will not solve your bird’s problems by reading answers on Quora,  watching a couple of webinars, or googling questions while working through endless YouTube videos. What you are facing is dealing with an animal having the intelligence of a 3 or 4 year old (autistic) child in a feather suit. If you’re not ready to make that commitment – get a hamster not a bird.

written by mitch rezman
approved by catherine tobsing

your zygodactyl footnote