by Shari Beaudoin,
Parrot Island Inc.,
Eden Prairie, MN
» Also known as the Greater Vasa Parrot
» Range is on Madagascar
» About 20" in length and weight about 480 grams
» Still unusual in aviculture and as companions but is becoming better known.
A Geologic History
Let me take you back to the Island of Madagascar millions of years ago. Madagascar, now over 300 miles away from Africa, was initially attached to its eastern side. All of the continents were part of one huge land mass called Pangaea, which began to break apart over 200 million years ago. This break up initially formed two land masses, one, Gondwana and the other Laurasia. Madagascar became a part of Gondwana. Only 65 million years ago Madagascar moved away from Africa and became its own island. Madagascar actually has more plant and animal connections with India as it stayed closer to it for a longer time than it did to Africa. It is believed that plate tectonics caused it to break away. Some of the latest information discovered by dinosaur experts suggests that South America, India, and Madagascar where all connected by a land bridge, most probably Antarctica. It was during this time that many of their animal species developed. At approximately the same time of this continental shift (65 million years ago) the dinosaurs became extinct. Whatever catastrophic event caused the death of the dinosaurs also caused the death of around 70% of all the species on earth.
At the time Madagascar separated from Gondwana, it was almost completely covered by western deciduous forest. Because of its geographic isolation Madagascar has developed its own distinct bio-diversity. Paleontologists exploring Madagascar’s Mesozoic Era deposits have found the bones of dinosaurs, early birds, and mammals. Most of the groups of mammals and other fauna that are found on Madagascar today had not yet evolved when Madagascar split away from continental Africa. Scientists believe that the ancestors of these animals arrived on this island after having crossed large expanses of ocean floating on rafts or logs of matted vegetation. It is the distinct adaptive species development of these animal groups that makes Madagascar so special. The animal and plant life of Madagascar is largely the result of a separate evolution on a land that is separate, but similar to a number of other environments. This history may explain some of the most distinct differences in the Vasa Parrot and the Little Black Parrot from all other parrot species.
Humans first arrived on Madagascar approximately 2000 years ago. At that time there were at least 50 lemur species (a primitive form of primate). The largest living lemur on the island rivaled the size of a male gorilla or orangutan. Of the 33 different types of lemurs in existence today, all are found only on the island of Madagascar. Not one of the lemur species that still survive on the island today is as large as the smallest of those that became extinct over the last 2000 years.
Madagascar was also populated by huge versions of tortoises, predatory raptors, and a gigantic flightless bird called the elephant bird. These birds were larger than any other birds living or extinct, being at least 10 feet tall. Their eggs were as large as the combined mass of over 180 chicken eggs! There is no evidence of any cats or dogs having been on Madagascar. There were strange primitive carnivores similar to huge versions of the mongooses and civets of today. Over the past 2000 years all of Madagascar’s large endemic animals have become extinct, and it is estimated that less than 3% of the western deciduous forest remains today.
Home of the Vasa
It is this isolated, diverse land that is the home of one of the most primitive parrot species alive today. The Vasa Parrot (Coracopsis vasa) lives solely on the Island of Madagascar and the surrounding Comoro Islands. The Little Black Parrot (Coracopsis nigra) has the same general range as the Vasa Parrot plus Praslin Island and recently a subspecies of the Little Black Parrot (Coracopsis nigra barklyi) has been found on the Seychelles Islands and has been placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List. A special federal permit is required for them to be sold across state lines in the United States. The genus name Coracopsis means crow-like. In 1969, while observing Vasa Parrots in flight, Forbes-Watson described them by stating that they “looked quite unlike any African parrot, and remind me of an elongated crow with a truncated head”.
Often called the Lesser Vasa Parrot, the Little Black Parrot is actually a separate species. It may help some to understand the difference between the Vasa Parrot and the Little Black Parrot, which are part of the same genus (Coracopsis) but are categorized as different species — the Vasa listed as species (vasa) and the Little Black Parrot listed as species (nigra). In comparison we will use the most common Grey Parrots, the Congo African Grey and the Timneh African Grey, which are not referred to as Greater and Lesser Grey Parrots, respectively. Interestingly, they are more closely related to each other than are the Vasa Parrot and the Little Black Parrot. The Congo and Timneh African Grey share the same genus (Psittacus) and species (erithacus) but are further categorized as different subspecies: the Congo (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) and the Timneh (Psittacus erithacus timneh).
The rest of this article will specifically relate to the Vasa Parrot categorized as (Coracopsis vasa vasa). There are three recognized subspecies of the Vasa Parrot according to Forshaw’s Parrots of the World:
Coracopsis vasa vasa
Juveniles have a grey black beak; brownish plumage; under feathers are edged with chestnut.
Adults are more brownish-black; faint darker band across center of tail; beak goes from grey to horn colored during breeding season but returns to grey after breeding season; iris brown and legs flesh-brown. Confined to eastern Madagascar
Coracopsis vasa drouhardi
Adults – slightly smaller; paler coloration, particularly on under parts which are grey; under tail-coverts whitish. Occurs in western Madagascar
Coracopsis vasa comorensis
Adults; plumage coloration paler; brown under-tail coverts Found on Grand Comoro, Moheli, and Anjouan in the Comoro Islands
A Unique and Interesting Parrot
Through this article I hope to contribute to a better understanding of this species. Over the past five years I have developed a significant interest in the Vasa Parrot. I have had many conversations with some of the few aviculturists who have had any experience or interest in them.
That information as well as numerous hours spent researching them and the island of Madagascar awoke in me a strong desire to learn and share as much information as possible about this unique parrot. I plan to include observations pertaining to physiology, behavior, intelligence, general care, and companion parrot potential.
I will also be following the development of my male Vasa Parrot, Gadget, over the upcoming years. I have been able to identify him specifically as Coracopsis vasa vasausing the above subspecies descriptions. Before talking about Gadget in particular I will offer some information in an attempt to show what truly sets the Vasa Parrot apart from any other member of the parrot species.
The plumage of the Vasa Parrot is brownish black with some silver that is mostly seen on the under parts. When looking closely you can see shades of greens and purple mixed amongst the brownish black. Vasa Parrots have an extremely long neck and smallish head that makes them appear almost pigeon-like. The feet and legs of the Vasa are extremely long with very thick skin. The most unique feature is the hemi-penis or cloacal eversion. The hemi-penis is seen only in the Vasa Parrot and the Little Black Parrot. It is not seen in any other member of the parrot family.
The breeding cycle starts when the hen’s ovaries begin to grow in size. When a female Vasa Parrot is in breeding condition her ovaries can fill up almost 1/3 of her body cavity. The hen’s readiness is believed to be the ‘trigger’ that initiates the breeding cycle. It is then that the male Vasa Parrots everts his cloaca (hemi-penis) to show his readiness. Once cloacal eversion has begun, the skin on the cere and under the lower mandible on the male turns a yellowish orange. The female will molt her head and facial feathers becoming bald and her entire head becomes yellowish orange. The female also has the ability to change her feather color without molting (possibly due to a chemical change in the oil secreted from the oil glands used in preening). The beaks of both the male and female change from their normal grayish black to almost white (the color of the beak when they are juveniles).
Vasa Parrots have been observed mating side by side as well as with the male mounting the female. What is different from other parrots and similar to reptiles, is that the male’s hemi-penis (cloacal eversion) protrudes and the pair will actually lock together. Vasa Parrots have been observed locked together both in their nest chamber and out on an open perch. The Vasa’s nest is in a hollow limb of a tree with the chamber being down in the trunk (the protectiveness of this chamber may be needed due to the threat of cyclones that often hit Madagascar as well as an additional defense against predators).
The male Vasa Parrot has some control over the amount of the eversion and he can retract the cloaca back into the body. When everted, the cloaca can become up to 1 inch in thickness and approximately 2 inches in length. Cloacal eversion has been seen in the female Vasa Parrot, but normally only when she is defecating. The Vasa Parrot and the Little Black Parrot are the only parrots with this reptilian internal/external sexual organ. As an interesting side note, years ago some veterinarians thought the hemi-penis was a cloacal prolapse and surgically removed them. It is easy to understand how this could have happened since the Vasa Parrot and Little Black Parrot are the only parrots with this unique organ and were not widely seen as companion birds.
Vasa Parrots are polyandrous (the females can have many mates). Since these parrots attempt to produce young only once per year, any problems that would result in no surviving offspring would create a delay until the next breeding season. The female increases her chances of producing successful offspring by being very demanding of her mate and expecting his full attention. He must feed and mate with her on demand or she will become very aggressive and chase him off. Prior to the eggs hatching, the female will attempt to attract and mate with other males whenever the first male is gone searching for food (millet-like grain grown by the local people, fruits, nuts, and seeds) or defending his territory. This behavior will increase the chances of successfully raising offspring in the case where any one male had been infertile or inattentive. It has been observed that each of the males who mate with her will also feed her (even if the resulting offspring are not theirs) possibly this is due to each of them thinking that the offspring are theirs. Having a number of males feeding her is thought to increase the survival rate of the offspring who grow at an amazing rate and therefore need a huge amount of food. While the males feed the female their necks are fully extended, so much so that they appear to be afraid of her. It has been noted in captive breeding situations that female Vasa Parrots can become very aggressive and even kill their mates. This situation probably occurs because the male has no way to escape the female when caged. Some breeders claim better success when pairing multiple males to one female. Female aggression can also be lessened by offering separate nest boxes at opposite ends of their aviary. This female aggression is not unlike that observed in some Eclectus and Great Billed Parrots.
Female Vasa Parrots have been observed burying their eggs and chicks in nesting materials, this is another behavior that is seen in some reptiles. The average clutch size of the Vasa Parrot consists of 2-3 young. Prior to the hatching of the young, the female Vasa will develop a small pouch of yellow skin under her lower mandible containing a clear liquid. It is probable that in conjunction with the food regurgitated to the offspring that the female also passes this liquid to them as an additional immune system booster. Some of this liquid can get on the females feathers giving her a wet greasy looking appearance. I wonder if this greasy liquid is one of the reasons that the female Vasa evolved to molt her head and facial feathers — possibly to keep herself clean.
Vasa eggs hatch in as little as 17 days which is similar to that of a Budgerigar or Cockatiel. Most similarly sized parrot’s eggs hatch in 26 to 28 days. Vasa babies also hatch with prominent large feeding pads located at the tip of their upper mandibles instead of the base as seen in some other parrot species. Vasa chicks go from completely bald to the development of pin feathers. They do not develop down before the pin feathers as other parrots do. The down grows in after feathers develop on the body but no down is grown on the head. The offspring are ready to fledge in as little as 40 days (about the same as a cockatiel). This extremely rapid development period is also unique to the Vasa Parrot. In comparison, African Grey Parrots fledge at approximately 84 days. During the upbringing of the young the Vasa hen will force at least two males to feed her so that she can produce enough food to ensure her chicks’ rapid development. Vasa babies will consume approximately 2 to 3 times the amount of food as a large macaw chick of the same age.
The Vasa Parrots natural call is a prolonged pee-aw or fee-ue on a descending scale; also a harsh squawk and a raucous kraaar…kraaar (Benson, 1960). Benson also heard a cho-cho-chi-chi-chi song-call. We have noted all of these sounds in our Vasa Parrot and best describe them as a cat, a donkey, and a monkey respectively.
Other Notable Differences:
Vasa Parrots are also unusual in their bathing behaviors. They exhibit three distinctly different types of bathing behavior. Vasa Parrots are very exuberant bathers. When bathing in water they will extend their wings and hop around on the ground. This description reminds me of my own childhood, puddle jumping out in the rain in delight. They are regularly observed sun bathing lying up on tree branches with open wings and uplifted feathers for maximum sun penetration. They also sunbathe on the ground of the Savannah were they lay for upwards of two hours with one wing up in the air and the other extended backwards over their back. I wonder if this behavior is simply for better sun penetration beneath their feathers or possibly to appear dead to predators while they are on the ground and at more risk of attack? Vasa Parrots are also known to enjoy dust bathing.
Vasa Parrots have a very unusual flight pattern. This can best be described as butterfly-like. They have a very long tail, the feathers of which are symmetrically rectangular as opposed to the slightly oval, tapering, rounded tail feathers found in other similarly shaped parrots (Amazons or Grey Parrots). This elongated rectangular tail design is seen in other bird species that excel at flying swiftly through heavily forested areas. Some examples of these are Sharp-Shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Goshawks and any Woodpecker species. Some breeders have observed their other parrots acting frightened when Vasa Parrots have been added to an aviary. This could be due to flight behaviors in the Vasa that are similar to some birds of prey. Vasa Parrots have also been viewed in flight on moonlit nights which leads me to wonder if they are somewhat nocturnal such as the Great-billed Parrot.
Our Vasa, Gadget
At this point I would like to share with you some of my observations and experiences with Gadget, our male Vasa Parrot.
Gadget was hatched on July 4th, 2003 and came to us when he was 5 weeks old. It was amazing to me to see how developed he was at such a young age. His tail was of full length and he appeared to be a much older bird. I was very concerned that the breeder had considered him weaned and immediately began offering juvenile hand feeding formula along with his daily diet. He was a very aggressive eater and appeared to be very hungry. After eating his formula he would spend time on his tree and after about 10 to 15 minutes he would simply open his mouth and pour a good portion of the formula out. This is not an uncommon behavior with some African parrots, particularly Jardines. I was quite concerned by this because of his age and his weight was falling. Some drop in weight is normal for parrots during their normal weaning period, but how could this be happening at such a young age?
With a better understanding of the Vasa Parrot I now realize that this was due to his quick development and fledging period. Hand feeding smaller amounts more often led him to eat larger amounts of food on his own. We began to offer him more cooked mixes along with his fresh vegetables and fruits, formulated diets, and whole foods mix. We found that he particularly enjoyed dandelion greens, peppers, pomegranates, carrots, bean mixes, and sweet potatoes. He has a great appetite and will eat most anything. When he sees any new food being placed in his cage he immediately charges towards the bowl while making his catlike sound and begins to eat voraciously. What he doesn’t immediately eat he will toss to the bottom of his cage in play and go down and eat it soon thereafter.
The natural sounds of the Vasa Parrot that I mentioned earlier in this article are all used by Gadget daily. He is also beginning to talk and concentrates with great intensity as he mumbles to himself very much like a young African Grey practicing his speech. He also imitates many of the sounds made by our other birds. Gadget has developed an extensive vocabulary of sounds that are unlike any we have heard before. I have no doubt that Gadget will become an excellent talker and his intelligence level astounds me.
I watch him work on toys and maneuver things with ease. I have been working with him on interactive toys and teaching him shapes and colors. He has an incredibly long attention span and will play with a toy for a very long time contemplating everything he could possibly do with it. When he has finally decided that he is finished he will hold it in his beak and throw his head back launching it high into the air directly to me. I then toss it back to him and he will continue with this game for some time.
Amazing Attention to Detail
The name Gadget was chosen for him primarily because of his amazing attention to detail and his need to figure out anything new. I have to admit that his full name is Inspector Gadget which partners well with my Double Yellow Headed Amazon, Lieutenant Columbo. (Being intelligent birds they have expressed an interest in opening a parrot detective agency. They claim they can solve cases that could not be solved by mere humans). Gadget spends much of his in-cage time playing with his Parrot Island Treasure Box. He loves removing his favorite things and putting other things back inside. Because of Gadget’s high level of intelligence he has been responsible for the development of gradually more complicated models of our Treasure Chest Foraging toys. (You can see Gadget playing with one of our treasure boxes on the back cover of this magazine). His overall nature is very gentle. Although he is a young bird he is tolerant of most anything and is okay playing with us or on his own. I am interested in watching his sexual maturity and how proper socialization will affect his long term companion parrot potential.
Gadget has undergone all of the pertinent veterinary testing and vaccinations recommended by Dr. Tammy Jenkins of St. Francis Animal and Bird Hospital. So far all veterinary testing on Gadget has been normal. The only noticeable differences so far have been the thickness of the skin on his feet and legs (noticed during his blood tests) and his x-ray results which showed a shadowed area where the hemi-penis would be. All other organs on the x-ray appeared basically the same as any other parrot. Because the hemi-penis is made up of noticed during his blood tests) and his x-ray results which showed a shadowed area where the hemi-penis would be. All other organs on the x-ray appeared basically the same as any other parrot. Because the hemi-penis is made up of soft tissue we will most likely see better images on an ultrasound that we will be doing shortly.
I am thoroughly convinced that the Vasa Parrot has vast potential as a companion bird. It is unfortunate that the main reason these bird have not been more widely kept as companion birds is simply because of their plain appearance and color. Most of our customers, who truly know and understand parrots, (I am sure this would also be the case with those of you who read the Companion Parrot Quarterly), see the unique beauty in Gadget. I wish that more people would search harder for personality in a companion bird rather than flash and color alone. I have certainly come to realize that the personality of my companion birds far outweighs their external beauty.
To me, Gadget is just as beautiful as any of our companion birds which include 2 Double Yellow Headed Amazons, 2 Black Capped Caiques, a Bronze Winged Pionus, a Dusky Pionus, and a Hyacinth Macaw. As all of you know it is the inner beauty of our companion birds that is most important. This inner beauty radiates from Gadget’s eyes, some of the most expressive eyes I have seen in any companion animal.
One of the many things that I have learned through my research into Vasa Parrots is the unfortunate state of their natural habitat in Madagascar. As mentioned earlier less than 3% of the Vasa Parrot’s forest habitat remains today. There are also very few breeders or companion parrot caregivers owners who have these birds in captivity. I hope that these birds will eventually receive as much notice as some of the other birds who are endangered because of habitat destruction (such as Hyacinth Macaws, Scarlet Macaws, Lear’s Macaws, Moluccan Cockatoos, etc.) and will not be overlooked simply because their appearance may not be as striking to the human eye.