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Fourth Factor to Breeding Succes

In America, once-common species such as green (Serinus mozambicus) and gray (S. leucopygius) singing finches, goldbreasts (Amandava subflava), Pekin robins (Leiothrix lutea) and white-rumped shamas (Copsychus malabaricus) are now in as much danger of being lost to aviculture as any rare parrot.

Breeding the birds in our care, therefore, is more urgent than at any other time in aviculture’s history, but this is easier said than done. Even the most experienced and accomplished birdkeepers, despite providing their stock with the finest housing conditions, quality foods and supplements, are often as frequently frustrated as any beginner at the end of the breeding season. Spacious cages or aviaries, warmth and a good varied diet, as the American keeper has found to his/her cost, obviously aren’t enough. So exactly what is it that’s missing?

We have to realize that everything we do for our birds is done from a human standpoint. We house and feed our birds a certain way because WE feel it’s in their best interests. Some of the time we might even be successful with our methods, but overall this is usually only to a limited degree. What we need to be doing is viewing things from our birds’ perspective. Quite literally, how do THEY see things?!

I have written many times of the importance of providing tropical birds, especially, with a minimum of 12 hours of daylight every day. This, of course, is impossible and so to compensate it is necessary to supply artificial lighting, usually by way of a dimmer unit. Unfortunately, the lighting we generally provide ours birds emanates from household tungsten bulbs or fluorescents – which is totally inadequate.

Birds have more sensory cells in their eyes than any other living creature. Unlike humans, they are able to see four, not three, primary colors (in light these are red, green and blue – not red, yellow and blue as in paint pigments). The additional color is ultra violet (UV) which, in some breeds, enables them to differentiate one another’s sex! More than this, however, UV light affects every aspect of a bird’s life.

Many of us prefer to keep our birds in an indoor birdroom, but even though this room may possess large windows the essential UV light found in natural sunlight will be virtually useless as glass filters most of it out. A lack of UV light leads to vitamin D3 deficiency, which in turn prevents calcium (needed for strong bones, egg production, blood coagulation and a correctly tuned nervous system) from being metabolized. Sexual and reproductive behavior, as well as healthy feather formation (vital for a problem-free molt), are all seriously affected. In essence, the birdkeeper may be completely unaware that the cause of all his problems is directly related to insufficient lighting!

Over the years I have searched around for a lighting system that is as near to the full spectrum of natural light as possible, i.e. a correctly balanced light output which included the UV segment. Herpetologists (keepers of reptiles and amphibians) and aquarists have long known the importance of correct lighting, thus full spectrum lighting equipment catering for their needs has been available for quite some time. With this in mind I contemplated using similar lighting for my birds. Unfortunately, many of the published “facts” about avian lighting stem directly from research conducted on reptiles, but birds have completely different illumination and dietary requirements. A number of the recommendations, therefore, are completely erroneous and positively health damaging to birds.

What is needed is a system of lighting developed specifically to meet all of a bird’s light requirements. Such a system would need to be easy to install and thereafter simple to use. Moreover, the birds subjected to such lighting would have to display signs that it was definitely beneficial. Happily, a British company, ‘Arcadia’, has achieved all of this and I have availed myself of its products with immense satisfaction.

I am presently using both 4 feet and 2 feet long full spectrum fluorescents. From the moment I positioned the lighting above the cages of two pairs of Dybowski’s twinspots (Euschistospiza dybowskii) the results were staggering. My own-designed wooden box-cages differ from the norm in that they have all-wire roofs instead of the usual all plywood type. The cages were designed this way so that the fluorescents can be hung or placed directly above and, with specially manufactured reflectors, all the emitted light is directed downwards onto the occupants, instead of becoming inefficient through having too wide a dispersal.

The Dybowski’s twinspots were selected because 1) I have enough pairs to do controlled experiments, some under the light and others without it and 2) male and female are difficult to distinguish normally unless they are viewed from below, whereupon the male can be differentiated from the female by his black lower breast and belly as opposed to hers of entirely gray.

After some initial nervousness due to an unfamiliar fitment being placed directly above them, the birds under the light settled down very quickly. I was instantly amazed at how dark the cages had been compared to their now being entirely basked in “sunshine”. But the birds, oh the birds! Previously, the red areas of plumage, notably the mantle and back, had appeared murky red, but they were now a lustrous velvet looking crimson. Also, the flanks, instead of being the usual dull black with white spots, now appeared more reminiscent of a jet-black sky full of twinkling stars. The difference in coloration really is that remarkable, making profile sexing determinable at a glance.

Twenty minutes after the lighting had been positioned one of the males, who had of late been somewhat subdued, burst into song and started to perform the breeding display. Her hitherto comparatively drab looking partner now in resplendent garb, the female was most suitably impressed and went to nest. The pair successfully reared young!

Clearly, an immense lesson has been learnt and not before time. Breeding success (or the lack of it!) has always been linked with the firmly entrenched tenets of housing, heating and feeding, whereas all along there has been a fourth equally important but generally less understood factor to consider – full spectrum lighting.