PARROTS: Sleep in the Wild, Sleep in the Home
by Sally Blanchard
Companion Parrots and Sleep. - I continually read that parrots absolutely need 12-14 hours of uninterrupted sleep with their cage covered in a totally dark room away from any activity. I hate this kind of rigid massive generalization. Like so many rules that people have made up and transfer from person to person and become the "truth", it is not absolute because there are many exceptions. I am pretty sure this one started with a woman who made very nice cage covers. Her advertising was the first place I ever read this and I cringed every time I read it. I will explain my reasons why in this article. - Our companion parrots live a very different lifestyle than their wild counterparts. Most parrots nest in dark tree cavities, although some of them nest in limestone cliffs and a few others build their nests. However, most parrots and their maturing babies don’t live year round in the nests in which they raise their chicks. Nest cavities are mostly for raising babies and once the babies are fledged, weaned, and independent from their parent’s intensive care, the parents and the youngsters don’t spend time in their nests anymore. While our well-loved companion parrots have large cages with all sorts of activities and a healthy varied diet, parrots in the wild have an entire environment that can consist of several miles and usually provides an abundance of natural food choices and lots of exercise opportunities.- It is not totally dark where a lot of parrots live especially in the tropics. The sun is brighter longer during the day and evening and the moon shines brightly at times. While it can be dark some of the time at night - it not totally dark a lot of the time - For the most part, parrots spend the night in what are called roosts. Depending on the size of the flock or family, parrots tuck themselves into the branches of trees usually late in the afternoon. Sometimes a family group roosts in one tree but some flocks of parrots roost over several trees. Most parrots head to their roosting trees when the sun starts to set so that they can be settled for the night before it gets dark. I have seen flocks of egrets and herons at dusk and there is a lot of activity as they settle in. I think they are communicating with other birds and getting comfortable. I have not watched parrot family birds at their bedtime in the wild but I would imagine that the more gregarious parrot species go through the same sort of activities. - Have you ever noticed how shallow the sleep of companion parrots seems? Just try sneaking into the kitchen to get a snack. They may seem to be sound asleep with their head tucked back in their wing, but with just about any sound or motion, one eye pops open. This is also true if they feel motion around them. Parrots are prey animals and they have to be wary of predators at all times. Parrots have encapsulated nerve bundles in the joints in their legs called Herbst’s corpuscles. They act as vibration detectors. At night parrots don’t have to worry about some of the large diurnal raptors but there are nighttime predators and the warier there are, the safer they will be. For example, if there is a snake climbing through the branches, a parrot may be able to feel this and fly off to another tree or branch. Of course, their actions will warn other parrots about the presence of a predator.- A companion parrot also has this predator warning system and sometimes in the dead of night something will alarm the bird and he will try to fly off of their perch. Unfortunately, when parrots in cages try to fly away, they crash into the bars of their cage. These behaviors are called night frights and sometimes the bird will thrash in their cage and injure and/or traumatize themselves. Cockatiels seem to be the bird most prone to this problem but other parrots also experience them. There are several reasons that they may have this response. One is if there are light reflections from cars flashing across the wall by their cages. Another is unexpected loud noises. They can also be responding to vibrations. Vibrations can be caused by trucks on a nearby highway but the major problem in certain parts of the country is earthquakes. When I lived in California, I had a lot of calls about birds having night frights. Even though we might not have felt it, chances are most of them were caused by minor earthquakes. If your bird is prone to night frights, make sure that there are no car lights hitting the walls in the room. If this is a problem, making sure the curtains are closed or covering the cage is essential. With some parrot family birds, I recommend a small sleeping cage placed on some folded towels to cut down on vibrations. For small and medium sized parrots a carrier can work as a safe sleeping cage. Some parrots prefer to be covered with total darkness while others feel safer with a night light, after all, there is moonlight where they live.- Many parrots have night time rituals just as we do. They have comfort behaviors that help relax them for sleeping. This is true with many companion parrots. Some birds grind their beaks and others quietly mumble. Cockatoos particularly show these behaviors plus they use their facial feathers to cover their beaks. In fact, some of the black cockatoos are in the genus calyptorhyncus, which translates as "veiled beak" or hidden beak. Covering their beaks and tucking a foot up into their body means they are less obvious in the trees. When we go to sleep at night, our eyes shut automatically and we don’t have to think about keeping them shut. This is true for parrots but when a parrot relaxes, its foot automatically closes around the perch and they don’t have to think about keeping their toes locked so they don’t lose their balance and fall. Parrots have incredible daytime color vision. In fact, it is much better than ours but when it gets dark we both lose the ability to see colors.- Individual parrots aren't all alike even if they are the same species and different species have different sleep patterns. Some parrots are crepuscular which means that they are active at twilight and sometimes into the night. Other parrots are more nocturnal which means they are more active at night than during the day. For example, Patagonian conures are naturally active at twilight and nights where there is a full moon. Great-bills are in part nocturnal parrots. It is clear from speaking to many breeders about their parrots' nighttime activities that many parrots don't sleep soundly all night. Evidently, some cockatoos keep Australians awake during the night with their calls and screams. Some parrots are crepuscular which means that they are active at twilight and sometimes into the night. Other parrots are more nocturnal which means they are more active at night than during the day. Besides many parrots take a "siesta" in the afternoon where they become inactive and nap. - I did a consultation with a woman with a long commute. She left for work when it was either dark or just getting light. She came home when it was dark or just getting dark. Her two conures probably napped some during the day. She had been told the uninterrupted 12-14 hours in total darkness with their cage covered rule. But 5 days a week her birds got no attention and they were losing a lot of their tameness. They were missing her and she was missing them. So I told her to get them up in the morning and give them attention for as long as she could before she left. Then I had her wake them up when she came home, let them out, have them eat with her, and then play with them for a while before she put them to bed and went to bed herself. The conures who did keep each other during the day tamed down again. They didn't suffer sleep deprivation. - Arbitrary or always or never rules need to receive serious thought for people to know if their situation makes them an exception to a rigid one fits all rule like this one. I am an evening person and that has always been the time when I interacted with them the most. My late great grey Bongo Marie loved to stay up with me at night and keep me company. If your parrots are healthy, playful and enjoy time spent with you and they don't get 12-14 uninterrupted sleep with their cages covered in total darkness every night for their whole lives – then that rigid rule doesn't apply to them. Far too many rigid rules about parrots can and should be broken. Yes, parrots need sleep! 8 hours in a room with few distractions at night are just fine most of the time.