Full Spectrum Lighting For Birds
How Light Works
Before we talk about full spectrum lighting for birds in the bird room let’s do a brief review of the science of light.
If you would like to skip this part and go right to the bird room scroll down to "The Facts About Full Spectrum Lighting".
The world around us is filled with electromagnetic waves and each wave has a different length, the length of an electromagnetic wave is measured from peak to peak
The human eye can only see a small fraction of waves.
These are referred to as the "visible light spectrum". The graphic below shows different wave lengths and their name. Did you know that a radio wave has the length of a football field?
The bird’s eye can see more than the human’s
They can see the visible light spectrum plus the UVA spectrum. It’s called tetra chromatic vision.
Wave lengths affect the color that we see
Color comes from how the different length waves reflect to our eye.
Just as the color of paint changes when you mix different colors (who doesn’t remember that yellow + blue = green) the colors of light change when you mix wave lengths.
The primary colors of light are Red, Green and Blue and any color can be created by mixing them. When all three are mixed together in equal amounts it creates White.
The color of light is measured in Kelvin (K).
Kelvin is actually a temperature and I will spare you the explanation of why it used for light color but know this, if someone were to walk into your bird room and say, “what temperature are your lamps” they are not asking you how hot they are, they are asking you what color they are.
Ultraviolet wave lengths (UV) are the other electromagnetic waves that have a direct impact on living organisms.
Suntan and the creation of vitamin D are good examples of their impact. Scientist have subdivided the UV spectrum into many ranges but we will only be discussing two; UVA and UVB.
UVA is ultraviolet radiation between 400-320nm wavelength and it account for 90 to 95% of UV radiation that reaches the earth. UVA is present equally throughout the daylight hours and throughout the seasons, and can penetrate cloud and glass.
UVB is ultraviolet radiation between 320-290nm wavelength. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the energy of radiation UVB makes up only 5-10% of solar radiation, UVB is strongest between 10AM and 4PM and does not significantly penetrate glass. UVB is responsible for vitamin D synthesis.
- Full spectrum is not a scientific name rather a clever marketing phrase implying that a lamp emits natural light.
- Because Full Spectrum is not a scientific term there is no measurement or definition for it.
- Lamps marketed as full spectrum are usually in the 5000K-6000K color range but in truth do not use the full visible spectrum.
- Sunlight is only 5500K at noon, its color temperature varies from 1700K-27000K during the course of a day. Now THAT is full spectrum.
- Very few Full Spectrum lamps include UV waves, the ones that do are usually made for and marketed to reptile keepers because there is scientific evidence that reptiles benefit from UV lighting. There are a few lamps with UV waves marketed for birds, these lights are easily recognizable by their outrageous cost. They also need to be replaced every 6 months.
- If there are any benefits caused by the color temperature of lighting in the bird room they are immeasurable and have never been proven scientifically.
The importance of light color in the bird room.
Back in the 80’s when I was an engineer at a company that made dentist drills our product engineers added a filter to the drill’s lights that made the output in the 6000K range (this was long before the term full spectrum was around). When the new product was demonstrated I was amazed at how much easier it was to see detail inside the mouth and how much more natural it looked, it was a huge success because it made the dentist’s job easier. THAT is a perfect example of the effect that light color has. Photographers have known this for decades and if you were to ask a professional what he knows about light color he would be able to talk about the subject a lot longer than you would want to stand there and listen. That’s because correct light color is paramount to how objects appear but light color has no effect on the health and wellbeing of birds or humans.
UVA waves in the bird room
Did you memorize the word tetrachromatic when I mentioned it above? That’s OK, it means that birds can see UVA. We humans (trichromats) view the world with around one million colors. Tetrachromats are able to see around 100 million colors. Experts theorize that it helps birds find food easier and identify healthier food. They also speculate that birds see many colors in fellow bird’s plumage that we can’t see assisting in finding mates and in identification.
How this actually effects caged birds is hotly disputed and highly under studied. Most of the on-line claims that come from lighting manufacturers and resellers is HIGHLY suspect but there is enough independent studies that show positive effects to cause caged bird breeders to take a serious look at UVA. At the writing of this article (June 2016) there are very few published studies but that is changing rapidly. Google search 2013 Ross et al AABS.pdf to see a 2013 study done for zoos that did find a link between aviary housed bird behavior and UVA.
Will UVA benefit my birds? The short answer is “while much more research needs to be done there is evidence that there is a link between positive bird behavior and UVA”
Will UVA improve my bird’s health? There is no scientific evidence that there is a physical health benefit to caged birds by adding UVA
Should I add UVA to my bird room? If you have the means (boat loads of extra cash) to add UVA then absolutely do it, but here is the caveat, you should not think of UVA as a “silver bullet” to make you birds healthier, happier and more productive because it isn’t. In my opinion the ingredients to happier, healthier, more productive caged birds in order of importance are these:
- Healthy breeding stock
- Proper nutrition
- Cleanliness and sickness prevention
- Climate control
- Compatibility of pairs**
- Nesting sites and material**
*Yes, even before nutrition photoperiod management is essential for breeding birds. Canary people have this figured out and follow it religiously but most finch people don’t practice it. I did not mention it in my article because a simple search will produce many good articles on the subject.
**These factors are highly breed dependent. For example some birds will only breed in flights, my strawberries will only nest if they have a place to build their own nests and the right material, and some breeds will mate with any member of the opposite sex while some (Gouldians for example) will not..
UVB waves in the bird room
UVB is responsible for vitamin D synthesis and vitamin D is certainly important for your bird’s health. Scientists have known since the 40’s of its significance, that it is not abundant in food and that humans are not out in the sun enough to make sufficient amounts. That’s why vitamin D fortification of milk and many other processed foods takes place.
The main sources of vitamin D are fish and eggs.
Because of its shorter wavelength UVB get filtered out very easily and none will get through glass so even if your birds get sunlight from windows they will not receive UVB.
Some facts about UVB
- UVB is the wave length that caused skin burns, skin cancer and cornea damage.
- In nature it is only present for 6 hours per day in the months of April through October.
- Its wavelength does not reflect so it isn’t in the shade and it is not present if there is cloud cover
- Vitamin D3 can only be synthesized by the exposure of UVB to skin, UVB will not penetrate feathers. Think of how much exposed skin your birds have then move on to the next fact.
- In a study done by Michael Stanford BVSc, MRCVS “The effect of UVB lighting supplementation in African Grey Parrots” it was found that African Grey Parrots did in fact benefit in the production of vitamin D3 by being exposed to UVB waves. The same study done on Amazon Parrots found no similar benefit. (My note) but Amazons do not have that large skin patch around their eye.
A personal opinion/observation about giving your bird UVB
Knowing what we just learned my conclusion is placing a source of UVB on a bird for 12 hours per day is overexposure at the very least. When I contacted the manufacturers of bird lights with UVB for specifics about their studies I received no reply, they recommend that the light be at least 24” from the cage. Guess what? The UVB waves from these lamps dissipate long before 24” (refer to the last item under “Full Spectrum Lighting Facts”) If you do decide to add a source of UVB please make it a supplement to a good quality light, only run it for short periods and keep it 24” away.
A note about the author.
I am a mechanical engineer with no formal education in avian health. I am also a lifetime hobbyist of breeding finches and canaries. In my frustration at the lack of good bird lighting I decided to build my own. The above information was gathered during my attempt to build “the perfect light”. I now sell my lights, they can be purchased on our store.