When we consider the health of our birds, we often think about their nutrition, their housing, and our social interaction with them. Sleep is . . . well, boring. You can’t cook sleep, order it on the Internet, or play with your bird while he’s doing it. But sleep for your bird is just as important as proper nutrition and housing.
“Giving your bird a good night’s sleep is the most important thing you can do for him,” said Ann Vann, co-owner with Cathy Vann of Vann’s of LA custom cage covers, from Slidell, Louisiana.
Sleep is important indeed. Without a good night’s sleep, a bird is likely to be grumpy, and with prolonged lack of sleep, real behavior problems can occur. Let’s take a look at what some other avian experts, breeders, and hobbyists have to say about providing your bird with his full share of Z’s.
Do Companion Birds Get Enough Sleep?
Whether or not a companion bird gets enough sleep depends entirely on its environment and the distractions in it. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, perhaps your bird isn’t either. Or perhaps you’re sleeping like a baby, while your bird, in another room, is disturbed by noise, light, and movement that you don’t even know about.
“From what I understand, many Americans are sleep deprived, and so it’s likely that most people’s parrots are sleep deprived if the owners are not doing anything to prevent it,” said Liz Wilson, Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician from Levittown, Pennsylvania. “I’ve worked with many parrots who were displaying ‘problem’ behaviors, and when owners made an effort to provide the birds with 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted, dark sleep time, many of those problem behaviors were resolved with no other changes.”
Most birds do need to sleep though the night, but Jean Pattison, “The African Queen,” from Lakeland, Florida, said that birds do adjust well to a household’s routine. “Greys are actually night owls,” said Pattison. “I hear them eating and prowling around all night. I don’t hear them doing a lot of playing at night, but they do a lot of whistling. People promote twelve hours of sleep, but none of my animals really get that. Here in Florida it doesn’t get dark till nine and then it’s light at six. The birds sleep when they want to.”
If Greys and some other species are up all night, when do they get their rest? Joyce Baum, “The Ringneck Lady” from Tucson, Arizona (www.ringnecklady.net), said that birds should be allowed to nap during the day. “Someone was complaining recently that their Ringneck was nippy. It seems that one person worked days and the other worked nights, so the bird was getting lots of attention. Obviously, the bird was not getting enough sleep, and its behavior reflected that,” said Baum.
Most avian authorities agree that somewhere between 8 and 12 hours of nighttime sleep is appropriate for most birds, and that “cat naps” during the day are generally normal. Also, a bird’s activity level may contribute to how much sleep it needs on any given night.
“Not unlike humans, birds need their rest to be healthy,” said Linda Brandt, lovebird breeder from Canal Fulton, Ohio. “In the wild, where they have to find their own food and are free to fly and exercise, I’m sure they sleep longer hours than might be necessary in captivity. Listen to how early the native birds get up, but also think of what time you saw the last bird of the day.”
Just Ten More Minutes . . .
Sleep is restorative to both body and mind, and it follows that any organism experiencing a lack of sleep won’t be able to function at its prime. Wilson said that, in her experience, any sort of problem behavior can be evidence of sleep deprivation—biting, excessive vocalizations, and feather destruction, included. She recommends increasing a parrot’s hours of uninterrupted sleep for a few weeks to see if that corrects the problem behavior.
The parrot living in the “modern world” contends with a lot of nighttime distractions that a wild parrot couldn’t even dream of, the primary offender being the evening news.
“Unlike the ambient noises of their native habitats, an active household often has a parrot either wishing to be included in the activities or trying to fall asleep in spite of the computer clicks, phone calls, socializing, and TV or radio noise,” said Noelle Fontaine, macaw expert from Tempe, Arizona. “It seems to that the parrots are ‘used to it,’ but I don't know if there’s a way to pinpoint just how much effect this compromised sleeping has on their behavior.”
Though we know that birds do need their rest, it’s not necessary to tiptoe around your sleeping bird, said Robirda McDonald, proprietor of 'Robirda Online' (www.robirda.com) from Kelowna, BC, Canada. “Noise is associated with safety for many birds, and unless it’s extremely excessive, a noisy background will usually not bother them. Sudden and startling loud noises should be avoided, though, as should extra-silent environments, which tend to make birds think that there’s a predator nearby. The only time the environment these birds evolved in comes close to silence is when there’s danger near, and that makes them understandably nervous and tense.
This doesn’t mean that you should be inconsiderate of your sleeping bird—he may not appreciate his being forced to “toss and turn” in the morning.
“If an Amazon is sleep-deprived it becomes irritable and snappish,” said Diana M. Holloway of Bryan, Ohio, president of The Amazona Society. “Think of how humans behave when we’re fatigued. Many Amazons in the wild live in the second canopy of the rainforest which has heavily filtered light, the reason they are so difficult to observe in the wild. They take off to forage at dawn, and come home to roost in the early evening, getting settled by the time dusk falls. Keeping your parrot well rested with 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night will help keep his behavior on an even level without the emotional ups and downs lack of sleep brings.”
Sleep In the Wild
“Like most wild creatures, dusk means bedtime and dawn means time to get up,” said Cliff Patterson of The Baby Bird Farm, Rockford, IL, writer for the Quaker Parakeet Society's news magazine. “There's a very good reason for that. Our birds are prey animals, and a bird that makes noise or moves around after dark often becomes a midnight snack for another animal and won’t live long enough to reproduce. This means that if your bird lives in your family room or living room, he loses sleep when you stay up late watching TV. Help him get enough sleep by covering his cage to simulate the darkness that he would have in the wild at that time.”
Fontaine said that each species has its own ‘sleeping habits.’ For example, Red-fronted macaws in the high mountain regions of Bolivia remain in their nests until the sun comes out, even though it’s after sunrise.
“Blue and Gold Macaws spread across completely different habitats will ‘sleep in’ on colder rainy days. Hyacinths fly at the first sign of light, then take siesta naps in the heat of the day. From the high mountains, to the swamplands to the rainforest, regardless of the region, the macaws—and other species—settle in for the night at dusk. Here in captivity I can only think it would be beneficial to set them up the same way,” said Fontaine.
Equatorial species will especially appreciate their light/
Possibly the most “domestic” of our commonly kept birds is the canary. But even though it has been in captivity for hundreds of years, it’s still sensitive to the amount of light it receives per day.
“Few people understand that the canary, along with most other songbirds, is photosensitive, and that light, or lack of it, generally dictates its sleeping period,” said McDonald. “The seasons dictate the hours the canary will want to sleep, and in turn will dictate his overall physical condition and reactions. For example, the lengthening days of spring tells canaries when to begin to come into breeding condition, and the lessening length of the days after the summer solstice that tells them to stop breeding and begin their summer molt. This means that pet canaries should not be exposed to artificial lighting outside unless it follows a routine similar to the expected daylight hours a canary would be exposed to in the Canary Islands.”
McDonald said that most canaries and finches have four or more color cones in their eyes, but no rods. What looks like dim light to us is actually quite dark to them, which is why they are active during the day and want to go to sleep at dusk. “Artificial lighting can disturb this cycle, and stimulate them to wake. This can upset their other diurnal rhythms and make it difficult for them to sleep properly, which will affect their energy levels, and may even affect their eating and digestive habits,” said McDonald.
“Most finch species will do well on a sleeping schedule that mimics tropical days,” continued McDonald. “Generally, a routine of 10 or 12 hours of sleep, and 12 to 14 hours of waking, will be fine for most species. I prefer to see us adapting to the birds, rather than expecting them to adapt to us. You can learn a lot by researching your bird’s native environment. Check out seasons, annual day length and temperature variations, and note the extremes, both daily and seasonal.”
Going ‘Night Night’
Keeping to a set sleeping schedule is a great idea, as is any regular routine. Remember, birds have inherent expectations, and if those aren’t met, the bird may become “out of whack.”
Linda Rubin, past president and current genetic consultant of the National Cockatiel Society from Boston, Massachusetts suggested that Cockatiels be placed in a darkened room for at least 10 hours a night. “You need to establish a routine. That not only includes the bird getting up at the same time, but it means keeping a timer on your lights and getting the bird used to going to sleep at a certain hour. A cage cover is wonderful to let the bird know that it’s time to prepare for bedtime. A cover can also keep out visual stimuli that may cause night frights,” said Rubin.
But what if your schedule doesn’t allow for a regular bedtime? It may seem that a bird will adapt to an erratic schedule, but it may show wear over time.
“Many people who want to spend as much time with their birds as possible often get their birds up when they do and keep them awake until they go to sleep,” said Molenda. “This is particularly true if the bird is kept in the main television viewing room. This can result in birds having a 14, 16, 18 hour or longer day and this can be very problematic, especially for pet parrotlets. Parrotlets exposed to more than 12 hours per day of daylight can start experiencing hormonal changes that can result in prolonged molting, feather destruction, increased territorial aggression particularly with certain toys or objects, and even egg laying in hens.”
Having just the right location for your bird’s housing can really help with allowing your bird to get the proper rest.
“The ideal situation is to a have a bird room where your birds live in a light-controlled atmosphere,” said Holloway. “Many people use an extra bedroom or a small porch. I converted a large walk-in pantry off the kitchen for my pets. There’s a glass door that looks into the kitchen but the timer lights go on at 8 a.m. and off at 8 p.m. The birds are included in family gatherings or one-on-one cuddle time by having a parrot stand, an extra cage, or a swing installed in the activities area. Most people think their parrot is getting enough rest in the middle of the living room by covering the cage. Don’t think for a minute that your clever pet isn’t taking it all in. He probably knows all the late night television monologues by heart.”
Breeding birds are particularly sensitive to changes in photoperiods (quantity of light), which directly affects hormone levels. Their programming tells them that more light equals springtime, which means an abundance of food and water—a good time to have babies.
“Based on my experience as a breeder, budgerigars require their ‘8 hours’ just as we do,” said Terry A. Tuxford, Editor of Budgerigar World, Basingstoke, Hants, England. “We control the amount of sleep time the birds get through artificial lights and timers during the winter. This ensures that lights go out at 10.00 p.m. and back on at 6.00 a.m. providing 8 hours of sleep and 16 hours with feeding and exercise opportunity each day. I also believe that it’s important for them to rest during the day and so our lights also go out between 11.00 a.m. and 3.00 p.m. The aviary is then lit by natural light which is subdued compared to the artificial lights. The birds rest during this period.”
Keeping your bird comfortable at night is also important to a good night’s sleep. Just as you need your favorite pillow, your bird needs its favorite sleeping perch or box, and some will appreciate cage covers as well. The bird may even need its own bedroom.
“Dr. Andrew Leuscher is the veterinary ethologist from Perdue University who originated the sleep cage idea. He advocates that owners place a small cage in an unoccupied room at night,” said Wilson. “Owners then put their birds to bed the same way parents put children to bed. Black-out shades over the windows in the bird’s sleep room can also help keep the room dark during short summer nights. In the morning, the parrot is moved back into its large day cage.”
Essentially, when it comes to sleep, most of our companion birds are similar—they will respond best to the amount of light and darkness that mimics the photo patterns in the wild. Bird are lucky, aren’t they? When was the last time you got 12 hours of sleep?
A study done on Zebra finches in the late 1990s by Daniel Margoliash and Amish S. Dave of the University of Chicago showed that birds do indeed dream. The finches apparently dream of their song, said the researchers, whose study demonstrated that the same part of the brain activated for song is also active during sleep.
Some birds sing aloud in their sleep, for example, lovebirds, who chatter happily away during a daytime nap, sound asleep. They don’t do this at night, however. In the daytime, the sleeping chatter and the little movements that go with it may ward off predators. At night, singing would only draw attention to the bird, making it more vulnerable.
Most creatures are programmed with a “flight or fight” response. Some birds have an ever better response—freeze and wait—the “maybe I’ll be invisible to this predator if I don’t move a muscle” tactic. This approach is fine for birds that live in dense rainforests, where it would be dangerous to go winging around in the dark and where camouflage works to their advantage. Most Amazons, Macaws, and other “jungle” birds will most often grip the perch tightly when they are afraid in the dark. Not so for the Cockatiel, a bird that is programmed to live on the open grassy plain. It’s more likely to “take off” when frightened. Keets and some Ringnecks may also experience night frights.
Night frights can be dangerous for a caged bird, who can badly injure itself thrashing around the cage. Many people living with Cockatiels find that even slight nighttime disturbances can cause night frights—cars going by, a rodent in the house, a dog or cat moving about, or any other unexpected noise or movement. To help avoid night frights, use a nightlight in the bird’s room, only cover the cage partially (if you cover it at all, and buy blackout curtains that cover any windows entirely.