Lighting in the AWS Show Holding Room
By: Richard A. Callahan

First published in the American Waterslager Society (AWS) newsletter
Reprinted with permission in the American Singers Club newsletter, October 1999.

Birds are among the most light responsive animals. The amount (lumens) and quality (wavelength) of light as well as daily length of light exposure has profound effects upon breeding, singing, molting as well as health and looks. Three excellent articles on the subject of light in the bird room by Bill Summers can be found at the American Singer Club web page ( The purpose of the following article is to demonstrate the need for a lighting protocol at American Waterslager (AWS) shows and to suggest the adoption of an AWS show lighting protocol close to the European light management practice.

The amount of light and the number and duration of light cycles Waterslagers are exposed to during shows has been a controversial subject for years. On the one extreme are the “Dark Adapted School” who believe that birds should be held in as close to total darkness as possible prior to showing and given a minimal period of full light (30 minutes / day) as is practiced in Europe. On the other extreme are the “Light Adapted School” who believe that even in training birds need a minimum amount of light to eat, and move about during the day plus two or three periods of elevated light to “Sing out”. Other hobbyists we'll call “Compromisers” occupy positions in between these extremes.

Most hobbyists believe that as long as the holding room is reasonably dark and the average amount of song is low, all is well. I believe the following paragraphs will show that this is likely naive.

The purpose of this article is to explore the biology of light in stimulating bird song and argue for the adoption of an, “AWS Show Lighting Standard”. Let me say at the beginning that this a hobbyist article; I have not had time to research this as a scientist. This article is full of speculations and assumptions that I believe are based on sound avian biology. It is intended to raise the level of this lingering discussion by focusing on the relevant issues. It is intended to be provocative; opposing opinions based on science, or experience are most welcome.

It is generally known that very few birds sing in the dark, but most sing most diligently at first light. Why? Silence in the dark has an obvious, if speculative advantage in nature. Since most birds cannot see well enough to fly in the dark, singing (or any noise making) by birds in the wild is a dinner invitation to a predator. Since “Silence in the Dark” appears to be hereditary (it's not learned) we can speculate that “Singing in the Dark”, is inhibited by inherited, neural behavior; similar to nest building. The quieting effect of darkness upon birds has been well known for thousands of years. Wild birds can be relatively easily taken from their roosts in the dark, hawks and falcons have been hooded when handled through the centuries. Birds become more docile in the dark, they are easier to handle and ship if kept in the dark. Light stimulates birds to high levels of activity including song, darkness subdues them.

As light appears at dawn, birds sing; it is as if the song builds in the bird all night to be drained at daylight. Song is sporadically repeated in many species all day often finishing with a “night song” at sunset. If a singing bird is placed in the dark (turn off the lights in your aviary) singing stops instantly, mid-phrase.

This dependance on light to sing and the inbred “need” to sing is the basis for training song birds. Training consists of cyclically inhibiting singing by darkness and then stimulating it by light. Daily repetition of this sequence results in birds reliably singing when placed in the light after extended periods of darkness. In addition, AWS habituated to short periods of light use these periods almost exclusively to sing. They will sing their entire repertoire until tired; a well trained AWS may sing strongly for an hour. Left in the light the “Sung out” bird will move about and feed, then they will repeat their repertoire after short resting periods. However, the length, complexity and energy of their song will diminish with each repetition until they are singing a small part of the repertoire with less energy during each song cycle. After being inhibited from singing for an extended period in the dark, the rested bird will sing again with full energy and complexity when placed in the light.

The controversy we are considering arises from two issues. First, how dark does it need to be to inhibit song and second, how much light do birds need to feed and drink during extended periods of darkness.

I've performed some experiments that I believe establish that acclimated AWS feed in total darkness.

My aviary is a windowless room below the soil line in my cellar. The lights are clock driven. My cocks are trained in virtually light tight cabinets within this room. I have run experiments in which I weighed eight trained, singing cocks and placed them in clean show cages. A fresh supply of seed and water were supplied daily as the cages were cleaned. For two weeks I shut these birds in the light tight cabinets and in addition turned off the aviary lights. Twenty three hours later the lights were turned on and the cabinets immediately opened. This experiment established that birds in closed, light tight cabinets, all contained within a pitch black room, eat large quantities of seed and water. Hulls are everywhere every morning. The cages and cabinets were cleaned, food and water replaced and the birds allowed to sing for a total light exposure of one hour. Birds kept under these conditions for two weeks continued to sing well and lost no weight. Therefore, AWS, acclimated to darkness, will feed in the dark. This is a very easy experiment to repeat. Just be sure that your birds are acclimated to their training cages for a week or so, and that you deprive them of light over a schedule of four of five days. Clean the cages and cabinets scrupulously when you put the birds into the dark and then inspect the seed and water as soon as you open the doors for singing. Also notice how little trained birds eat during the light cycle, yet continue to produce normal amounts of excrement and remain healthy.

The second question, how dark does it need to be to inhibit singing is much more difficult to answer because habituation can be a large factor in the response observed. Birds held in total darkness even during the day, “Dark Adapted” may be stimulated to sing in very dim light whereas “Light Adapted” birds (day cycles contain dim light) may require more light to sing. Controlled experiments to prove if habituation does play a role in a birds response to increased lighting have not been done to my knowledge. However, I have two experiences that indicate that habituation does effect a birds response to light intensity.

As AWS show secretary this year, one of my responsibilities was to setup the bird holding and judging rooms. Happily I had experienced help. As we set up the bird holding room I learned of the, “Light Controversy” for the first time. Several knowledgeable and experienced members objected in the strongest of terms to holding birds in near darkness. After some animated debate I agreed the holding room lighting regime would be a “Light Adapted”, light condition; enough light for humans to safely walk around in, plus two thirty minute “full” light periods a day and an additional period of light to clean the cages and feed and water. We had excellent facilities this year; the holding rooms had lighting systems that included dimming switches; we could adjust the light to virtually any level. When this dimly lit condition resulted in loud song in the holding room we covered the cages with white sheets. As the Show Secretary, I spent many hours in that room over the two day show period. The room was filled with low song all of the time. When moving about the room for extended periods it became obvious that some birds were singing under the sheets much more than others. This observation took on personnel significance when my, “Dark Adapted” team was shown as the very last team late Friday afternoon. To my consternation and embarrassment they hardly sang at all; and what they sang they sang terribly.

The next morning at six AM I covered this “Team” with a black cloth prior to turning on the lights to feed and water the other birds. This team remained in this darkened environment while the remaining birds were shown Saturday morning. These shrouded birds were thus in the dark all night and held darker than the other birds all morning. After the judging was complete and the show closed; Tom Trujillo generously agreed to unofficially re-score this team as a learning demonstration. One of the birds was not graded because of a color disqualification. The other three birds scored, 126, 117, and 93; a combined score 76 points higher than the preceding day; the best bird scoring 39 points higher than the day before. I have repeated this experiment at home by placing my “Dark Adapted” birds in low light conditions. They sing continuously in very low light and appear to increase volume as the light intensity increases.

I do not have the expertise to score Waterslagers so that I cannot demonstrate that scores deteriorate after extended singing during the Dark Cycle. Perhaps qualified judges could help with this aspect. The experiments are obvious; repeatedly score the same “Dark Adapted” birds before and after they are held in “Light Adapted” and “Dark Adapted” holding conditions. It would be very advantageous to measure the light intensity the birds are held at and associate them with the scores received. The judge should not know the holding conditions of the birds he is judging.

The theory advanced here is that the inhibition of song by darkness is sensitive to a range of light conditions. When habituated to near total darkness during the Day Cycle a little light is enough to stimulate song. Birds habituated to more light during the Day Cycle need more light before they start to sing. This has very important implications on showing Waterslagers and probably all song birds. First, it appears that holding “Light Adapted” birds in the dark has no adverse effect; like the “Dark Adapted” birds they do not sing and they do feed in darkness. However, holding “Dark Adapted” birds in even low light can cause them to sing more or less continuously. Hobbyists generally agree that birds that have been allowed to sing for hours prior to showing show poorly.

This analysis is consistent with why Belgians go to extremes to hold their show birds in near total darkness; it puts all the birds; whether “Dark Adapted” or “Light Adapted” on an even footing. Regardless of the light conditions their owners hold them in, birds held in total darkness at the show will perform to their potential. This analysis would also predict that birds experiencing show holding room conditions “significantly lighter” than the Day Cycle of their training rooms might sing below their potential at the show. One of our problems is that at this time we do not know how much of a lighting difference stimulates “Dark Adapted” or “Light Adapted” birds to sing or how much singing during the “Day Cycle” is necessary to degrade performance. As with most biological responses, one can expect considerable variation bird to bird; strain to strain. Certainly adjusting the light in a holding room to some “average singing level” is unfair to those birds adapted to “Dark Cycles” (or light sensitive strains) who will be responsible for most of the song. These birds will not show as well as their “Light Adapted” competitors.

The alternative of establishing a “Light Adapted” protocol, in which show birds are held at a prescribed light level during the “Day Cycle” is impractical. All hobbyists would need to set up their training cabinets with measured light levels (Light intensity as well as Type (spectral mix) of light) and the show holding room would need to be similarly light engineered. Even if this were practical, it would have the disadvantage of being different from the Belgian practice.

After 300 years of showing Waterslagers the Belgians appear to know something. The “Day Cycle” must be Dark during shows. Once this show standard is established hobbyists can train their birds using any of a variety of light levels that work for them. At the show, all birds will be silent except for one singing period per day.

Copyright © 1999 Richard A. Callahan. All rights reserved.

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