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Light and Color Vision in Birds – Improving our Pets Quality of Life

Recent research on avian vision at Sweden’s Lund University has revealed that birds lose their ability to see color at twilight.  These findings have inspired me to consider how we might use lighting in order to improve the health and breeding potential of captive parrots, finches, doves and other birds.

The Findings

The article, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, points out that birds need 5-20 times the amount of light as do humans in order to see color.  By day, birds have extremely sharp color vision, and see both UVB light and a far greater range of colors than do people.  However, their color vision disappears at twilight – far earlier in the day than does that of any other animal studied thus far.

Light’s Effect on Captive Birds

I believe it is important that we consider the type of light we provide to our birds…the zoos in which I have worked are now experimenting with full spectrum lighting in their bird exhibits.

Poor light quality and intensity may explain the difficulties experienced in breeding otherwise hardy bird species in captivity.  Light can have some unexpected implications for reproduction.  Captive female desert iguanas (lizards native to Southwestern North America), for example, rarely reproduce unless given full-spectrum lighting…without UVB light, they cannot see the pheromone trails laid down by males.

Similar scenarios are likely at work where birds are concerned.  Indeed, there are indications that proper levels of UVA and UVB light encourage natural behaviors, reproduction and strong immune systems in captive birds.

Providing Birds with Appropriate Light

Fortunately, a number of options are open to bird owners.  Exposure to natural sunlight (bearing in mind that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays) is the best of these, but when this is not possible a high quality Full Spectrum Bird Lamp should be utilized.

Further Reading

The new findings on light intensity should be valuable in explaining certain aspects of bird evolution and behavior.  For example, the chicks of Gouldian, firetail and zebra finches, all of which nest in dark tree hollows, sport light-reflecting nodules near their mouths.  To read more about this survival strategy, please see my article Flashy Finch Chicks.


Lighting for Your Pet Bird – the importance of the photoperiod

In a recent article I reviewed the basics of light quality as it relates to the health of pet birds. Another aspect of lighting deserving careful consideration is your bird’s photoperiod, or the length of its day and night. The vast majorities of birds kept as pets are native to tropical habitats, and are exposed to 10 to 12 hours of darkness within each 24-hour period. Birds ranging into temperate areas will, in the wild, be exposed to photoperiods that vary with the seasons. Your most prudent course would be to carefully research the natural ranges of the bird species that you keep, and to provide them with a photoperiod that approximates that of their natural habitat. By using light timers, you can gradually increase or decrease daylight throughout the year in a natural, cyclical pattern. This was one of the first lessons I learned when working with birds in zoos, and I found that careful research definitely resulted in healthier birds and in increased breeding successes.

A common problem for pet birds is the fact that they are, in most cases, tied to their owners’ schedules as concerns day length. We are, as a rule, awake much longer than most tropical birds should be. Parrots and many other birds need at least 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night. All species with which I have worked proved to be very light sleepers, quick to awaken with the slightest disturbance. Depriving your pet of sleep will very likely weaken its immune system, and render the animal susceptible to a host of ailments. Chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked to behavioral problems in parrots, such as feather picking and screaming. As many species are stimulated to reproduce by the advent of longer days, chronic egg-laying may occur in birds that are not given enough hours of darkness each night.

In order to accommodate your bird’s needs, you may need to move the cage to an isolated room for sleeping. This room should be as quiet as possible and the windows equipped with thick curtains to limit outside light. By setting the room lights on a timer, you can control your bird’s photoperiod so as to make it relatively independent of what is going on in the rest of the house.

Day length manipulation is a breeding tool that has long been used by hobbyists and in the zoo and poultry breeding industries. I will cover specific techniques in a future article.

An interesting article concerning avian photoperiods is posted at:


To read more about bird lighting, check out this article from Frank’s archive:

Providing the Proper Amount of Light to Pet Birds

Providing the Proper Type and Amount of Light to Pet Birds

Those working with birds in zoological collections, commercial aviaries and poultry farms have long recognized that the behavior and health of the animals under their care seemed influenced by the quality and amount of light that they received. It many cases, breeding behavior and egg production also seemed linked to light in some way. Observant hobbyists also realize that parrots, canaries, finches and a host of other birds seem to do much better when exposed to natural sunlight. Perhaps you have noticed that birds housed in outdoor exhibits at zoos, or observed in the wild, seem more vigorous, active and brighter in color than individuals of the same species kept indoors?

Details concerning the specific needs of captive birds as regards light quality and quantity are still lacking in some respects, but a great deal has been learned. Much of this information has come as a byproduct of the exploding interest in captive reptiles, many of which fail to thrive if not provided with appropriate lighting regimes.

We now know that most commonly kept bird species rely upon ultraviolet light of a specific type (UVB with a wavelength of 295-310 nanometers) in order to synthesize Vitamin D (if experience with reptiles is any guide, nocturnal species such as owls and nightjars are likely able to obtain adequate amounts of Vitamin D from their diet). Exposure to UVB in this wavelength is also critical to normalization of the calcium/phosphorus ratio. Birds also sense ultraviolet light of another type, commonly known as UVA, as well as the colors red, green and blue (in this regard they are said to have tetrachromatic vision). UVA light provides the aforementioned colors, when viewed by birds, with a certain “tone” that we humans do not sense. Without UVA, birds will not see these colors properly, and their behavior and health will be negatively affected.
Most birds have the number of ways of assessing the quality and duration of the light to which they are exposed, and of conveying that information to the brain. Details concerning light quality are sensed by the retina and relayed to the pituitary gland. The Harderian Gland, locating near the eye, sends information concerning wavelength and photoperiod to the pineal gland. The pineal gland, thyroid gland and hypothalamus use this information to affect the functioning of other organs and of behavior in general. Insufficient or inappropriate levels of UVB or UVA, and daylight periods that are too long or to short, can lead to a host of problems in the functioning of these glands. So, if the quality of the light is not sufficient (i.e. “full spectrum”, or similar to that supplied by natural sunlight), critical glands will malfunction and will, in turn, negatively affect a number of important organs and processes.

To read the rest of this article, click here.

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