Shedding Some Light on Cage Lights

One of the “original” pairs ~ My first male Oedipus the CFW enjoying the warmth of his cage light & acting curious as I photograph him. (TWFA 2010)

This article is part of my series “10 Misinformed Facts” about topics relating to keeping Finches. Throughout this series I will cover 10 misconceptions for each subject in hopes that my “tips” will help hobbyists sort through their research to better their flock’s care. 

We’ve all battled with cage lights as small animal owners. Should we use them? What kind should we buy? What sort of bulbs do I use? Are they 100% safe?

The fact of the matter is that we can’t find all of the answers in one place. Some people talk about full spectrum, some speak of UVB. Others still swear by natural lighting. It can be overwhelming so the typical owner will stray from lights altogether.

I can honestly say that if you are not using cage lights for your indoor birds then you are depriving them of an aspect of their natural environment, just like deciding not to give them greens or grit. Most indoor setups are not sufficiently lit without them because windows are not exposed to direct sunlight at all times during the day, or the windows filter too much of the natural light rays. Also in some states such as our beloved Washington that we now call home, the day and night hours can be too random or incomplete for Finches. Our sunrise can range from 5-7am and our sunset has ranged from 4-11pm, therefore we need to regulate our flock with artificial lighting.

You will visibly see a difference in your Finches if they are not receiving enough light or the nutrients they are supposed to receive from the sun. They will appear sluggish, quiet, tired, pale, depressed or show other similar signs. They may even show signs of malnutrition. With the proper lighting, birds are able to identify food and mates, offspring and other resources and are generally active and happy.

As far as what type of light is best, there are a wide range of possibilities and they’re all based on financial budgets. The hardware store CFLs are on the bottom as the cheapest, next are the “full spectrum” lights, and then there are the UVA/UVB bulbs. All of which are able to be kept in cheap low wattage cage lamps. Cheap lights are better than no lights as long as they’re safe, and quality UVA/UVB bulbs are only about $15 each so it really is up to each owner to do their own research to decide what is best for them.

An example of artificial lighting above some large flight cages. (Click for more info/credit)

An example of artificial lighting above some large flight cages. (Click for more info/credit)

Be sure to use pet-specific lamps! The cheaper versions that are more available are known to have issues such as causing smoke, fire or other complications that could easily kill off an entire flock in a matter of hours.

With many new and first-time owners ignoring advice to research their new pets or even with some advanced hobbyists who are misinformed and spread their opinions to others, it is increasingly popular to speak about lights as if they’re dangerous. The reality is that everything is dangerous if you use it incorrectly or without any knowledge or direction. Hopefully this article will help to further alleviate the incorrect “facts” that I see circulating throughout the community. Especially since it can be daunting to try to care for your pets without some helpful tips to start with!

Misinformed Fact #1: “Full-Spectrum bulbs are special UV lights, so you can only buy them in pet stores or online.”

Full-spectrum bulbs are the same exact “twisty-shaped” bulbs that you buy for your desk lamp. They are called Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs or CFL bulbs. They also come in the “tube-shaped” variety. You can buy them at any Home Depot, Lowe’s or the like. They are 9, 15 or some other low wattage and are used in cages to provide the “full-spectrum” lighting.

The term “full-spectrum” is highly misleading however. This does not mean that they give off any sunlight-equivalent UV rays. They do give off a full spectrum of light and are satisfactory for most hobbyists but to put it bluntly, birds need sunlight all day every day.

Instead of going to your local hardware store to spend a couple of dollars on a couple of CFL bulbs, try ordering a UVA/UVB specific light that will still fit in your regular cage light fixture (make sure you get the low wattage version) with multiple options for different models. They are safer than the cheap CFL bulbs and provide birds with the type of lighting that they need.

Misinformed Fact #2: “CFL bulbs are like all fluorescent lights and are therefore dangerous (and don’t they contain barium phosphors like tanning beds?).”

First let me get this out of the way: there are no barium phosphors in bird cage lights, especially from Hagen. Barium phosphors are used in tanning bed lights which are not anything like what you would find at your local pet store. To sum up that comparison, tanning beds have a UVA/UVB rating of about 93+% versus that of an average full-spectrum bulb which has a rating of less than 1%.

Another common misconception is that all fluorescent lights have ballasts which are notorious for regularly breaking or malfunctioning. Most cheap CFL lights do NOT have internal ballasts like the lights in say a public school do. This is important because the older model ballasts may malfunction and cause serious issues for any living organisms around them. They are also known to start house fires (again I am referring to older models).

Why are older fluorescent lights such a problem? Among the other reasons I mentioned, they contain Mercury. If you’ve ever seen a large/old one break, it becomes a Hazmat situation instantly and men resembling the scientists right out of ET in white suits are cleaning up the mess. Again the newer models with self-balasts are much safer and are less likely to break or malfunction. They also may come with a warranty.

Using a dimming system with a CFL or UVA/UVB bulb is a high risk situation. Always be sure to check with your manufacturer before you plug it in!

Misinformed Fact #3: “You can put a high watt bulb in a low watt lamp.. Wait, what’s that strange smell??”

A HUGE mistake that a lot of inexperienced hobbyists will make is to place a high wattage bulb in a low wattage lamp. This will cause the bulb to break and possibly release a gas or smell – this is mostly in the case of using cheap CFL bulbs. As you can imagine, this is bad for your flock and can result in fatalities or life-long injuries. The best solution is to use a surge-protected outlet or power strip, a low wattage lamp (9-15 watts) and a UVA/UVB bulb that is safe for cages and low wattage (check the wattage before you buy bulbs). The Zoo Med Economy Clamp Lamp can work with up to 100 watts and works well for me.

I also use the Repti-Glo 5.0 bulb in the 13 watt version because it includes its own ballast, emits UVA and UVB rays, and is not too high of a wattage that it’s the equivalent of direct sunlight. Whether your bird is indoors or outdoors, you should never leave them in direct sunlight. The 2.0 bulbs don’t emit enough rays but the 5.0 have a perfect range, while the 10.0 version is intended for desert-dwelling lizards and is the equivalent of being placed directly in the rays of the sun.

Misinformed Fact #4: “Birds and cage lights were meant to be together. Just set up and go!”

Since lights are only effective from 12-18 inches, make sure your lights are reaching them where they are the most. (Photo from Finch Niche ~ Click for more info/credit)

Since lights are only effective from 12-18 inches, make sure your lights are reaching them where they are the most. (Photo from Finch Niche ~ Click for more info/credit)

As with everything in animal care, if used properly tools will successfully help improve your pet’s quality of life. However if you do not install your cage light correctly it can injure your birds. First, make sure that your birds have a shady spot in their cage that they can seek refuge in from the cage light. Install the light at an angle that mocks the sun during it’s highest point aka “noon.” It’s very important to make sure that all wires are far away from the cage bars so your flock cannot chew on them. This is mostly prevalent in larger birds but it is a possibility with Finches over time so to be safe, make sure they cannot access the cords.

It’s also important to use a gradual dimming system for the afternoon change from day lights to night lights. This can be done with nightlights that turn on just before the day lights go off and turn off just before the day lights come on in the morning. This is to ensure that your birds are not frightened by the lights coming on or going off. It is also to prevent your birds from being injured inside of their cage at night because they cannot see. This is especially important if something creates a loud noise to startle them.

The subject of whether or not to use cage lights all day is still under debate among bird hobbyists of all species. The bulb manufacturing companies such as Hagen recommend using the lights for only 1-2 hours per day if you are keeping Finches.

After seeking a further explanation, I was directed to Hagen’s research facility, aka the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute. For those who are unfamiliar with HARI as I was, it is a 28-year-old facility dedicated to the captive breeding and maintenance of companion birds. Their explanation has caused even me to reconsider an all-day lighting system with detailed facts that are a result of their observations.

“Most companion birds are fed very good diets. Unless you are feeding your birds junk and depriving them of minerals and vitamins, they do not need the nutrient supplement from sunlight or artificial lighting. We’re not saying 1-2 hours of light-we’re saying 1-2 hours of full spectrum light!

Avian Health Updates are indicating that we are shortening life spans of companion birds with too much in the way of vitamins that prolong states of hormonal overdrive, and since some of them are fat soluble, if overdosed cause irreversible vital organ damage. Now sunlight provides a Vitamin D2 & D3. And, this fat soluble vitamin can be overdosed and does HAVE a strong affect on hormones. This is a plus for breeding aviaries, but companion birds do not need to have their hormones fortified.

Gouldian Finches enjoying a free-flying aviary in the Florida Keys. (Photo Credit ~ HARI)

Gouldian Finches enjoying a free-flying aviary in the Florida Keys. (Photo Credit ~ HARI)

If you were to observe parrots or finches, in their natural environment, they do not spend 16 hours a day in natural sunlight. In fact, they spend very little time in the sun as they are usually in nests, under cover of trees etc. Please see the attached photo of finches that was taken at a free flying aviary in the Florida Keys. Note the foliage that protects the finch from direct sunlight. The bird makes the choice when to get direct sunlight and it’s usually in the morning. Observations of parrots in the wild are very similar.

Additional health threat to our companion birds involving full spectrum light is that it’s proving to be harmful on their eye health. Many birds are coming into vet clinics with glaucoma, cataracts or other eye damaged conditions – and at an early age. Environmental histories indicate that these birds are exposed to unfiltered sunlight for prolonged periods of time. I can’t say I’ve heard of passerines with this ailment, but certainly psittacines.

Many parrots are extremely agitated when they’ve been over stimulated by lighting. As mentioned, the full spectrum lighting will have an effect on their hormones – many birds that are hormonally challenged will bite, scream excessively. Some even resort to plucking.

Finches are usually overactive and display unsettled behaviors – excessively jumpy or overly aggressive towards other flock members. Granted some species of finches, such as Gouldians, are more prone anxiety type behaviors than others. My recommendation for finch aviaries with full spectrum lighting is to allow the bird to make choice – especially for breeding birds and for caretakers to learn the difference between what is normal behavior and what is not.” -Melanie Allen, Avian Product Specialist @ HARI

Whatever you choose – whether it is a constant light supply or 1-2 hours per day, as the HARI specialist recommends, you should be using a UVA/UVB bulb that is rated at a level equivalent to shaded tree tops. Personally I use the Hagen Repti-Glo 5.0 which is rated as a shaded rainforest tree top.

Misinformed Fact #5: “Cage lights or no cage lights – it doesn’t matter because I feed my birds egg food!”

False! One of the first things I ask when people are having issues with their Finches and their fertility is: “What kind of cage lights are you using?” The main reasons for most health issues has to do with nutrition, and lighting is part of that intake of nutrients. The quality and amount of light a bird receives directly affects their health and fertility.

A Fawn juvenile enjoying the warm sun rays for the first time. (TWFA 2013)

A Fawn juvenile enjoying the warm sun rays for the first time. (TWFA 2013)

The reason that all birds need vitamins both that they can synthesize from sunlight and that they can ingest is because both are entirely different delivery methods. They affect very different areas of health and ingested vitamins are NEVER an efficient substitute for sunlight. All of that being said it is perfectly possible to feed your birds many different vitamins/nutrients and keep them from ever having any deficiencies, but they will not be at their peak in health. The same goes for anyone feeding an all-seed diet, or anyone who does not feed their birds fresh fruits and vegetables or fresh foods. The only way to give your birds the best advantage is to provide a safe amount of each and incorporate all of the options they would normally find in the wild.

The cheaper CFL bulbs do not offer much of a range of light wavelengths, They do offer some UVA but not UVB, which is what enables birds to synthesize Vitamin D. Yes, Vitamin D is also something that is found in egg food, but again that is an entirely different delivery method affecting health in an entirely different way. UVA rays enable them to identify & clean plumage better (therefore identifying mates and offspring better), see their hatchlings better, find food & water sources, and has other benefits such as strengthening their bones and immune system among others.

Here is an article from Finch Niche regarding cage lighting and the science behind why your bird NEEDS real light! As they put it, “Light is a basic, natural regulator of many body processes and physical activities in both birds and mammals.” And here is another article on the subject from Drs. Fosters & Smith.

Misinformed Fact #6: “Full-spectrum lights are better than fluorescent lights.”

"Repti Glo 2.0 Compact Full Spectrum bulb" - their "full spectrum" option and wavelengths of UVA/UVB rays.

“Repti Glo 2.0 Compact
Full Spectrum bulb” – their “full spectrum” option and wavelengths of UVA/UVB rays.

Let me blow your mind for a second here: Full-spectrum lights are fluorescent lights aka CFL bulbs. Also – the fact that they are in a tube shape does not somehow make them emit UVA/UVB lights, those are CFLs too.

They are the same caliber as the bulbs at Walmart or Home Depot, unless they include a self-ballast option. This is sometimes offered with a slightly more expensive “full spectrum” option like with the Repti-Glo 2.0 bulb. It is their “full spectrum” model (left).

The Repti-Glo 5.0 has a much higher UVB output rate as you can see in its photo (right). It is specifically designed to simulate shady forest environments.

It doesn’t have as high of an output rate for UVA as the 2.0 though so the company recommends using both (of course). We have 2.0 bulbs in the overhead light in our bird room and 5.0 bulbs in each cage light. In the aviaries, we have two lamps to keep the entire space bright and have one 2.0 & one 5.0 as the company recommends. I will say that after using full spectrum and Featherbrite lights for so long, the UVA/UVB lights all make a huge difference down to the 2.0 version.

The real “Cage Light Movement” you will read about on other blogs and websites should not be for fluorescents, or misleading “full spectrums,” it should instead be for the UVA & UVB light waves that actually give off sun-quality rays. That is something every educated bird owner knows! “Day one stuff.”

Misinformed Fact #7: “Any ol’ angle will do.”

While the point of cage lights may be to illuminate the entire cage, it is still important to imitate the angle of the sun. It’s best to try to depict a “noonday” angle or something similar. Finches also need a shady spot in their cage to seek refuge from the light if need be.

It’s also best to make sure you aren’t blasting them with light by strapping the lamp to the side of the cage at a 90 degree angle. This does not provide shady spots for them to hide from the light in and it does not mock the natural angle of the sun.

Misinformed Fact #8: “Bar-shaped lights are better than the twisty-shaped ones.”

They are the same! Those bulb styles are both CFLs, and are even available in the same wattage. The only difference is the shape and therefore the surface area of the bulb and the ability to illuminate a larger space. The bar-shaped bulbs are especially good for aviaries and stacked cages with little space between them.

Misinformed Fact #9: “Distance doesn’t matter.”

The average distance for effectiveness of cage lights is about 12-16 inches. Any large increase will render the entire process less than effective or less as effective than if the light were closer to your birds or cages. When installing, make sure to hang lights a few inches away from the cage bars. Be sure that once the light has been on for a few hours that it will not be too hot or too close. Start at about 6 inches and move the light in as it becomes warmer to be certain that it will not injure your birds or cages.

Distance is also important for those that believe an overhead room light is enough. This is simply not true and will not reach the birds it is supposed to be helping.

Misinformed Fact #10: “Night lights? No need.”

A perfect night light transition system! (Photo from the wonderful efinch.com)

A perfect night light transition system! (Photo from the wonderful efinch.com)

A common misconception in the bird world is that we don’t need night lights, and that the day lights are the only ones we have to worry about. This is entirely untrue. At night, many things are happening with your flock in whatever room or rooms you keep them in. There may be a loud noise that occurs inside our out, or a bird may fall off of its perch or out of its nest. If something does occur at night, birds are more prone to being frightened by it. This may cause them to thrash about in panic and injure themselves or each other. This also may happen with night terrors or night frights.

To prevent any nocturnal injuries, all bird owners should have a nightlight of some kind with their flock. Some people will use those outlet night lights that plug in and turn on after dark. Others will use cable or string lights on a dimmer or timer. Even others still will use a lamp with a moon bulb. This is a simulation of the light that the moon will emit at night.

In the end, regardless of what you choose, be sure to do your own research! Hopefully these tips will assist you in your cage light purchase of the present and future.

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: The New Bird Room~ | The White Finch Aviary

  2. Jane Walker says:

    Thank you for this information. I’ve been researching bird lighting and have seen every opinion under the sun, I think. I am basing my lighting on your article and am prepared to make adjustments based on my budgie’s response to it (I haven’t gotten the bird, yet–am waiting till after the holiday rushing around is done so I have plenty of time with the baby bird). I’ve had 4 budgies in the past 25 years, and all the new information on light, diet, and exercise requirements that is now available gives me hope that the 5th one will live a longer, healthier life than the others did.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words Jane!! I’m so happy this article has helped you. I know your budgie will have a wonderful home with you, miles above the rest just because you cared enough to take the time to do your own research. HUGE KUDOS and I wish every bird owner were like you!! I hope they take note of your commitment!

      It is rather unfortunate that there has not been easy access to aviculture information on the internet until recent years. That is something as bird keepers (esp finch keepers) we’ve had to overcome with lots of trial, error and heartache. Now the issue has become discerning what is fact and what is completely incorrect. I am happy there is even any info available at all, that is precisely why I started this site 5 years ago to spread care information.

      Good luck with your new budgie friend and keep me posted!! Although I can already ascertain you will not need luck. You will do wonderful. 😉

      • Jane Walker says:

        Hi Chelsea,

        I got my baby budgie, a green fellow I named Jean-Luc, back in January. He is nearly mature now and doing great. His vet says the lighting choices I made are good, and the vet provided his own recommendations for foods, which, with only slight modifications, are working well for Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc’s first words were “Kiss, kiss.” followed by smoochy sounds. Oops! Well, he does love to be kissed! His vocabulary has been increasing ever since, and I clearly have to watch what I say!

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