Parrot Oddballs Part I: The Vasa Parrot
Most people think of parrots as being brightly colored, tropical birds with short, strong hooked beaks and the ability to fly. Other characteristics that most parrots share include the habit of nesting in tree cavities, monogamy, and a diet based largely on seeds, fruit and other plant matter. They also tend to live either in forests or open areas with scattered patches of trees.
However, there are 359 species of parrot (as listed in Parrots of the World, by Joseph Forshaw) and they are quite a diverse group of birds. Some aren’t colorful at all, a few cannot fly, some are polygynous and a couple are polyandrous. While nearly all nest in cavities of some sort (either in cliffs, termite nests or trees), one species builds very large, communal nests. Finally, there are a couple species that will eat meat, and one of these lives on a treeless, subantarctic island.
This series of articles will explore the diversity of parrots by profiling the more unusual of parrot species that have characteristics not usually seen in parrots. Most of these will be species not commonly kept as pets, but some will be species that are popular pets.
I will start by describing the Vasa Parrots, of which there are two species that inhabit Madagascar, the Comoros, Mayotte, and the Seychelles.
The island of Madagascar is home to two of the world’s most unusual parrots: the Greater Vasa Parrot (Coracopsis vasa), and the Lesser Vasa Parrot (or the Black Parrot, C. nigris). Compared to more familiar species of parrots, they are dull looking, being devoid of any bright-colored feathers. Both species are dark grey-black and have pink beaks. They are shaped somewhat like Amazon parrots, in that they have short tails and short bodies. However, they are rather tall, with Greater Vasa Parrots being about 50 cm tall, and lessers being about 35 cm tall. In flight, they look a bit like crows.
The behaviour of Vasa Parrots, however, is anything but dull. They display a number of behavioural traits rarely seen in other birds. For one thing, they are polyandrous: one female will often mate with several males, and while she incubates the eggs, she may be fed by multiple males. Polyandrous mating systems are rare in birds, and the only other parrot species with such a mating system in the wild is the Eclectus.
Vasa Parrots are also unusual in that females are larger than males. In most other parrot species, males and females are similar in size. Female vasas also lose the feathers on their head during the mating season. Additionally, their feathers turn brown during this time. The colour change is not caused by molting but is due to a redistribution of melanin in the feathers. No other parrot species changes colour in this manner. The skin on the heads of both the males and the females also changes colour – to yellow – during the mating season. So, while most parrot breeders must guess when their parrots are in the mood for mating by observing their behaviour, it is obvious when a female vasa is ready to breed: her head turns bald and yellow and she starts to look like a vulture.
Male Vasa Parrots also have some unusual characteristics. Like many reptiles, but unlike other birds, they possess a hemi-penis. Vasa intercourse is also bizarre, since it can last for nearly an hour, rather than the few seconds it usually goes on in other birds.
Vasa Parrots incubate their eggs for only eighteen days, while most parrots of similar size must incubate their eggs for about thirty days. The chicks hatch naked and start to grow feathers later on, skipping the “fuzzy” stage that most parrot chicks go through. They are absolutely voracious feeders and many breeders find them difficult to spoon feed for this reason. They grow quickly and can be ready to fledge in only seven weeks – very fast for such large parrots. Vasa chicks have a pad on their beaks that stimulates a very strong feeding response when it is touched. A single pair of wild Vasa Parrots would have a very difficult time feeding such demanding chicks, which may be one of the reasons why many females are assisted by multiple males while raising chicks.
Very little information is available about the pet qualities of Vasa Parrots, because they are rare in captivity. Their temperaments seem to range from shy to gregarious. They are unlikely to become strict “one-person” birds because they do not form permanent mate bonds in the wild. They are apparently very clever and curious and need a lot of toys for mental stimulation. Some individuals can learn to speak, and evidently, they become chattier during the breeding season. Vasa parrots also love bathing, both in water and in the sun. Sun-bathing vasas will often spread their wings out like they are trying to get a tan.
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Note: The above photo is from Parrots of the World, by Joseph Forshaw (illustrated by William T. Cooper)