Vasa Parrot - More Than Meets the Beak
- Categorized in: Parrots
The jungles of Madagascar are the abode of many unique and intriguing animals, from the aye-aye with its long clawed finger for extracting insect larvae from rotten wood, to the huge, white and black furred lemur called the indri, to vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa and Coracopsis nigra), a fascinating pair of avian species found on Madagascar itself and the nearby islands of the western Indian Ocean. These highly unusual birds have dark charcoal grey feathers, pale pink beaks, long necks, and idiosyncratic breeding behavior that sets them apart from every other parrot species.
Vasa parrots tend to be playful creatures, which relish human companionship and enjoy being cuddled, stroked, and given large doses of attention. Their devotion to their human comrades and their intelligent, lighthearted nature makes them superbly suited to people who enjoy keeping parrots who will give as much affection as they need to receive. They can be taught to mimic words, recognize the names of specific individuals (and use them), and whistle. Even juvenile vasa parrots are likely to pick up a few words and begin talking.
They are not only intelligent but display a lot of character, complete with eccentric habits, and are quite active. Owners of these parrots are unanimous that they make highly entertaining companions and display a charming sense of humor, with a natural flair for comedy. The relatively drab plumage of the vasa parrot, in short, conceals an extremely colorful, intriguing personality.
Vasa parrots are a rare species and owning one of these exciting birds will be an extraordinary and rewarding experience for any parrot enthusiast. The greater vasa parrot (Coracopsis vasa) is, as expected, the larger of the two varieties, while C. nigra, the Lesser vasa parrot, shares many of the same traits but possesses a smaller physique. Greater vasa parrots measure around 20” long with 13” wings, while lesser vasa parrots are around 14” long with 10” wings.
“Vasa” is derived from a Malagasy word that means “loud-voiced”, which is fairly straightforward but not entirely accurate. The female vasa parrot is likely to sit next to the nest during breeding and sing a complicated song, and males also become loud at this time. During the rest of the year, however, vasa parrots tend to be much quieter, except for talking and whistling. The lesser vasa parrot produces flute-like whistling sounds and tend to be rather more melodic than their larger cousins.
Vasa parrots imported to the United States during the 1970s (their first major introduction to the country) were often white-feathered, which, at the time, was advertised as being an albino form of the bird. However, you should note that these parrots are not albinos, but rather unfortunate birds suffering from Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), so you should beware of any specimens, which you see with white feathers.
Overall, vasa parrots are superbly suited to being the close confreres of humans, offering great affection and a wide range of highly intelligent, amusing behaviors and pleasant eccentricities to those who own them. Such a bird also helps you stand out from the crowd and shows that a parrot without extravagant feathering can be just as scintillating a companion as the most brilliantly plumaged bird.
Description and Physical Characteristics
Vasa parrots of all kinds are charcoal grey to black for most of the year, though the females change color during the breeding season, which starts in February and lasts from a quarter to a third of each year. Their beaks vary in color from pale pink to black. Females turn blotchy grey or light brown during the breeding season, and also shed the feathers of their heads and faces to reveal startling yellow-orange skin beneath. The beak is the stout, strong, hooked affair characteristic of hook-billed birds of all kinds.
The physical structure of vasa parrots makes them look larger than their 20” really makes them. They have very long tails for parrots, and their bodies are quite compact with a long neck. Females are generally larger than males by up to 25%; so large specimens are likely to be female. This seems to correspond to the female's dominance.
As noted above, white-feathered specimens, while spectacular in appearance, are not rare and valuable albinos but are actually seriously diseased individuals.
The greater vasa parrot is a bird of the Madagascar dry deciduous forests, unlike its jungle-dwelling lesser relative. It is found all through Madagascar and also in the Union of the Comoros, an archipelago of volcanic islands off the coast of Africa.
The lesser vasa parrot is also an inhabitant of Madagascar, though it prefers the wet forests along the eastern coast and thus does not compete directly with the greater vasa parrot. There are also a number of island archipelagos inhabited by the lesser vasa parrot, including the Comoros as well as the Seychelles, and the French-owned island of Mayotte in the Mozambique Channel.
Those parrots from the Seychelles belong to the subspecies C. nigra barklyi, which is sometimes called the Seychelles Black Parrot instead. These birds are endangered and sale of them is restricted as noted under “Rarity” below.
The main strains of both the greater vasa parrot and the lesser vasa parrot have been assigned the conservation status of Least Concern by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), as they are quite numerous and successful in the wild. However, one of the subspecies of the lesser vasa parrot is now protected and is included on the U.S. Endangered Species List. Sales of this parrot, C. nigra barklyi, require a federal permit to be legal in the United States.
The breeding patterns of vasa parrots are extremely unconventional by parrot standards, with the females highly aggressive and sexually dominant to the point of presenting some danger to the males. When in the grip of the breeding cycle, the female pursues the male relentlessly, demanding both food and copulation. This is not troublesome in the wild, where the male can readily escape, but in the confines of a cage or a house it can prove problematic.
The male is often run so ragged by this female persecution that many people keep two males for each female so that they can “spell” each other and avoid exhaustion or injury. The birds should also be watched, especially if the hen is older than the males, since hens have occasionally become so aggressive that they kill the male outright while in the grip of breeding season instincts.
The female's readiness for mating is displayed not only with these actions, but by most of the head feathers shedding to reveal bright yellow or yellow-orange skin that seems to prompt the male to want to feed her. A few fine feathers may remain below the eye, giving the incongruous effect of sideburns.
The female's feathers also change color without being molted during the breeding period, which lasts for about three months, and occasionally four. Their color alters from charcoal grey to pale brown or some other lighter hue. How the female's feathers change color is only partly understood, though it has been posited that the oil secreted by the preening gland changes chemical composition and, when it is spread on the feathers during grooming, causes the melanin to bleach out to a lighter tint.
Another distinctive vasa parrot breeding trait is that the male possesses a hemi-penis, which is viewed as a primitive, reptilian, or even “dinosaurian” trait. While some couplings last for only a few seconds, at other times the male and female form a “tie”, locked together by their genitals, and remain in this state for up to 45 minutes. Around half an hour seems to be the average time for a tie to last. The male may mount the female or the pair may mate side by side.
Hatching and Growth
The idiosyncrasy of the species continues with the hatching and growth of the young. Vasa parrot chicks hatch and grow extremely fast, at a vastly accelerated rate compared to other parrots, and thus need plenty of food to sustain their quick maturation. Most parrot eggs from medium-sized species of the same general bulk as the vasa parrot hatch in slightly less than a month. By contrast, vasa parrot eggs hatch in speedy 18 days.
Both species of vasa parrots will breed and lay eggs in captivity, and home breeders report a high rate of success breeding them and rearing the chicks. Success is reported with both one male and one female, and two males and one female, so the optimal ratio is still a matter of heated debate. Clutch size is either two or three eggs.
Vasa chicks are completely featherless; so do not be shocked or alarmed when you see completely naked chicks in the nest. The chicks are also long-legged, long-necked, and slightly dinosaur-like in appearance. They never sprout down but instead show their first feathers as pinfeathers when they are preparing to develop their first adult plumage.
Be sure to supply even larger amounts of food than normal to vasa parrots with chicks, since the appetite of the young birds is even more prodigious than that of the adults (who are no slackers when it comes to dining, either). Pads on the beaks of the chicks produce a powerful feeding reflex when touched, though these vanish after a few weeks of growth. Spoon-feeding may be difficult because of the young birds' reflexes, and many people use a syringe to shoot food down their throats into their crops. Consult with an experienced aviculturist or veterinarian before feeding begins. Chicks are aggressive feeders, so be prepared for some vigorous mealtime work.
Fledging of the young occurs in 7 weeks, and when hand-raised; these birds are often independent (or showing strong signs of independence) at 10 weeks.
Housing, Feeding, and Care
The size of housing needed for vasa parrots depends on whether or not you are breeding your birds, which are, as noted above, quite capable of breeding successfully in captivity. The minimum cage size for individual birds is listed as 30 inches by 30 inches. However, if you are breeding the birds, then the minimum cage size is 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet, with even larger cages preferable. This is partly to allow the male to evade the female when her attentions become too demanding.
A varied diet is best for promoting vasa parrots' health. Among dry foods, these birds require pellets, seeds, and mixed nuts. You should also include plenty of vegetables and fruit in their diet. Captive birds enjoy strawberries, apples, oranges, carrots, grapes, peppers, and mangoes (mangoes are one of their foods in the wild, so these exotic fruits are well suited to their metabolism if you can obtain a supply where you live).
Large amounts of food are needed for vasa parrots, which eat more than ordinary medium-sized parrots, and the daily food ration needs to be increased even further when chicks are present.
Vasa parrots enjoy bathing and will do so in either dust (if available), or water. They will lie in dust and kick it up over their ruffled feathers in the same manner as the domestic chicken, so beware if kitty litter boxes or flowerpots are available and the vasa parrot is allowed the freedom of your home unsupervised. Finally, vasa parrots greatly enjoy sunbathing and will be happier and healthier if given access to a sunny window for some time each day.
Potential Problems with Vasa Parrots
Vasa parrots are subject to the usual list of parrot ailments. They are fairly quiet birds most of the time, though they become more vocal in the breeding season. They should remain emotionally healthy as long as they get plenty of attention and affection during the day, and are allowed to participate in your life. As usual, neglect can lead to feather picking and other self-destructive behavior, so you should only obtain these birds if you are willing and able to fulfill their emotional need for companionship.
Interesting Vasa Parrot Facts
Besides all of the other traits that make them fascinating companions, vasa parrots have a few other peculiarities to set them apart from other species of parrot. One of these is that they are possibly raptorial, hunting, killing, and devouring small animals in the wild. It is possible that vasa parrots require meat in their diet, and it certainly will not hurt them to feed them a little from time to time, assuming they are interested. Of course, this does not change the fact that they eat fruit and all other expected parrot foods as well.