I have done a post or two on this topic in the past but think it’s important enough to re-visit it from time to time. Please take the time to read this to learn, or give yourself a reminder, about the many benefits of sunshine for parrots.
Companion parrots have a very different lifestyle from those of their wild cousins. As much as we try to provide them with a great diet and an active environment, there are few alternatives available for captive parrots that offer the same health benefits as life in the wild.
An active companion parrot expends only about 50% of the energy that a wild birds does. Part of that is due to the “room service” style meals that they are served every day. A wild bird spends the majority of its time foraging in various locations for meals requiring that they use their flight and climbing skills constantly throughout the day.
While there are alternate ways to provide exercise for a companion parrot, such as foraging toys and a cage layout that encourages activity, there is little to replace the benefits of fresh air and sunshine. Sunlight has a vital part in the overall health of a parrot:
- It produces strong bones, beaks, and aids in feather production.
- It builds the immune system and minimizes the chances of developing certain cancers.
- It kills germs and bacteria on the feathers and skin (and it has been recently discovered that direct sunlight kills the deadly PDD virus on surfaces.)
- It enhances a bird’s vision.
Its most important function for a bird is that it helps its body produce vitamin D3. While preening, a parrot pinches the uropygial gland, or preen gland, at the base of its body just above the tail. It excretes an oil which is spread throughout the feathers keeping them waterproof and well-conditioned. When sunlight touches the feathers of a bird, it interacts with the oil causing the body to synthesize vitamin D3.
Vitamin D3 plays a large role in a bird’s ability to absorb the calcium from its diet. A lack of sunlight, therefore, can result in more than a single vitamin deficiency in the same way a poor diet can.
Vitamin D3 is the only vitamin that can be manufactured by the body, and only after exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Other vitamins come from food or supplement sources. Unfortunately, there are very few food sources that provide adequate amounts of D3 and, with the exception of certain fish types, they are mostly fortified foods. The solution to this vitamin deficiency is not dietary, a very rare exception.
Sunlight has a dramatic affect the body both physically and emotionally. You may have noticed that, during the winter months, many people complain of feeling tired and overwhelmed. Some people blame it on holiday stress. While the holidays certainly can be stressful, winter is a time when most people are more frequently indoors more due to the weather – perhaps a resulting vitamin D3 deficiency is to blame for the unsettling feelings.
In our parrots, a D3 deficiency can also cause depression or anxiety. Behavior and mood can be affected causing a bird to be intolerant and quick to bite.
Many people do not have the resources for outdoor aviaries for either spatial or financial reasons. While it isn’t always safe or practical to roll an indoor cage outside, as few as 20 minutes of direct exposure to the sun three times per week is adequate. Training your bird to wear a harness and taking it for a brief walk a few times a week can be enough to satisfy it needs.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.