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Lesser and Greater Vasa Parrots

by Dave Blynn

Reprinted from Bird Talk, October 1992, pp. 88–94

I would like to share what I've learned about the black parrot (Coracopsis nigra) and its larger relative, the vasa parrot (Coracopsis vasa). In the United States we call these birds the lesser and greater vasa parrots, and they are rare in aviculture.

Very few of these parrots lived in the United States until 1984 when approximately 800 arrived from Madagascar, their primary range. Aviculturists showed little interest in these somber-color birds and, as a consequence, importers did not attempt to bring in any further large vasa shipments. One or two traders have imported a few more vasas from Holland in the last seven years.

There is a large collection of vasas in the Philippines, and a significant number of them are found at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. At least 100 pairs are in the United Kingdom, and there are other collections within Europe. Only limited information, however, is available on these unique birds.

Few bird owners keep vasas as pets, and even fewer successfully breed them. I am writing this article based on a handful of observations. As more people gain experience keeping and breeding vasas, I hope to learn how typical and accurate my experiences with these parrots have been.

Subspecies and Distribution

The greater vasas live on Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, and are brownish-black in color. The largest subspecies, C. v. vasa, is from eastern Madagascar and measures approximately 20 inches long. The subspecies C. v. drouhardi—slightly smaller and paler—is from Western Madagascar. The Comoro Islands are home to C. v. comorensis, the smallest and palest of the greaters.

The medium-size lessers, C. n. nigra, measure 14 inches long. They are dark brownish-black in color and live in Eastern Madagascar. The slightly larger and paler C. n. libs inhabit the western regions. The subspecies C. n. sibilans is smaller and paler and lives on the Comoro Islands. The highly endangered C. n. barklyi are restricted to the Praslin Island in the Seychelles. They are the smallest—about 10 inches long—and number less than 100 in their entire range (Forshaw, Parrots of the World).

What Makes Vasas Interesting?

Vasas are totally different in appearance from other parrot species. They love water, are addicted to sunbathing and domestic babies make great pets. Some freshly imported vasas were tame from the first day, while others remain skittish after years in captivity.

This article presents a good opportunity for me to challenge other vasa owners to document behaviours in vasas that are unseen in other parrots. We have the chance to develop a sound breeding program for them before they disappear from Madagascar and captive populations die out in the United States.

Appearance and Flight

Vasa parrots have long necks, long tails and small heads. They look as if they could be pigeons as easily as parrots. They have only melanin for feather coloration, yet during breeding season the skin around their head and neck turns mustard yellow. Vasas have long limb bones, the only modern parrots with this trait. Their skulls are also different. The vasas' flight movement is slow and like a butterfly (Silva, Psittaculture).

Forbes-Watson (1969) said that in flight greater vasas look like elongated ragged crows with truncated heads. He described their flight movement as heavy and marked by slow flapping wingbeats. Forshaw notes that the lesser vasas fly gracefully, alternating long glides with strong rhythmic wingbeats.

A greater hen escaped from her aviary in Florida a few years ago. She flew above the pine trees and then pulled in her wings, like a hawk, and dove straight down. At about 15 feet above the ground she fanned her tail and, using her momentum, flew horizontally as if she had been shot from a cannon. She scared all the other parrots in the collection. The local hawks did not return for two weeks, but her owner recaptured her a few days later. Harry Sissen, an English aviculturist, releases his mixed collection in large colony flights during the nonbreeding season. He notes that all the other parrots, large and small, retreat to the far end of the flight for the first day or two when he places the vasas in the community aviary. The vasa flight pattern confuses the other parrots, causing them to remain wary for a time. Greaters and lessers are very agile. They fly from floor to perch easily, even in smaller cages.

Water-Loving Sunbathers

Vasa parrots love water. When housed in outdoor aviaries they enjoy the rain. They extend their wings and hop, almost prance, around on the floor. Then they fly to the top of the cage and hang upside down, again extending their wings to catch the water. Mine get very excited whenever we clean their aviary floor with a hose. They can't wait for their bath! Vasas kept indoors enjoy a daily misting equally well. They are not heavily feathered and look very ragged when wet, but rapidly recover as their feathers dry. One English birdkeeper reported that his vasas liked to play in a children's wading pool!

Vasas, like many aviculturists, are avid sunbathers. They will lie on the ground and stretch their wings out, one held out like an upraised arm and the other awkwardly thrust down and backward over the body. Zoo visitors seeing this display have been unwilling to believe that the birds are fine. Other vasas place their chests on their perches and extend only one wing at a time, usually in the "over the back" position. I am not sure why they sunbathe, but all greaters and lessers exhibit this behavior.

Tameness

Vasa parrots are not consistent in their behaviour toward people. Many freshly imported greaters and lessers took food from the hands of their importers on the first day. Others are still apprehensive of human contact after eight years of captivity.

My imported vasas, greater and lesser, range from tame birds that want contact to very wary parrots. One greater hen and one lesser male freely take food from my daughter, Betsy Paul, who is their keeper. Most of the birds watch us carefully, but show little fear. A few fear the sight of us.

My sample of imported vasas is too small to generalize about, but my observations are similar to those made by other vasa owners. One group of domestic greater babies—all from a breeding pair in Alabama—range from sweet to spooky to aggressive. This pair produces babies every year; the first clutch was in 1988. The four 1991 babies are all females. Two are very sweet and loving, one tolerates handling, and the fourth baby borders on vicious.

I have very little knowledge of the temperament of lessers and welcome any information that readers can provide.

I know five greater vasa babies that are currently pets. All of these parrots, like their wild-caught counterparts, are extremely curious. They enjoy new toys and discover different things to do with each toy. They often roll over on their backs while playing. These parrots are accomplished escape artists, a trait common to all vasas.

One male in a pet shop in New Orleans likes all customers and takes great delight in playing dead. He learned to do that trick on command before he was 6 months old. A cock in a private home in the Atlanta area learned to talk when he was about 1 year old. His sister from a clutch two years later, living in the same home, learned her first word at 4 months of age. Both talk with reasonably clear, high voices. Neither one was encouraged to imitate or to communicate, unlike African grey babies.

Another male, also in a home in Atlanta, hatched in 1990 and is now beginning to talk. He lives in a kitchen with other pet parrots (a grey and a Pionus) and is not aggressive toward them. He recently removed rawhide strips from a wooden toy by untying the knots and pulling the rawhide out of the holes in the wood. Then he rethreaded the rawhide through the holes. Not satisfied, he picked up some seeds, chewed them into smaller pieces and then used the seed pieces to plug the holes in the wood.

These birds are quiet and do not scream when the sun comes up or goes down. They will be more vocal when they are older and in breeding condition. The three pets in Atlanta will be placed in breeding situations when they are old enough to reproduce and mates are available. I have no reports on domestically bred lessers that are kept as pets.

Breeding

Vasas are uniquely different when they reproduce. At least four pairs of greaters and five pairs of lessers have bred in the United States since 1985. Other pairs have bred in captivity in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and the Philippines.

The breeding cycle starts when the hen's ovary begins to grow in size. Charles Blakeslee, D.V.M., sexed one of my greater hens and her ovary was normal size. He sexed her again a few months later when she was in obvious breeding condition. Her ovary filled almost 1/3 of her body cavity. He also sexed a lesser female in breeding condition and noted the same great enlargement of the ovary. This was not noted in any of the hens that were not in breeding condition. Dr Blakeslee has sexed many parrots, but this development was a first for him.

The cloacas of both hens and cocks also enlarge. The male cloacas actually evert when they are ready to breed. The males have some control of the amount of eversion and can retract the cloaca back into the body. A fully extended cloaca on a male greater is about the thickness of a hot dog and can be up to 2 inches long. Hens do not normally evert, but can do so when defecating. I have photographed a hen with a 1-inch eversion.

As the cloacas are going through their changes, the skin color on the heads and necks of both male and female lesser and greater vasas changes to mustard yellow. One lesser vasa owner notes that her breeding lesser male does not experience a skin-color change when in breeding condition, but both male lessers at the Sacramento Zoo do develop the yellow skin.

Aviculturists report that breeding is sometimes done by joining cloacas while in a side-by-side position. Others observed the male mounting the hen in a more normal position.

Nesting

Some hens lay their eggs very consistently every other day. One prolific greater hen lays her four eggs over a two week period, with as much as a seven day delay between the second and third egg. Another greater hen also had a seven-day delay between egg two and egg three.

Parrot eggs normally hatch in 18 to 29 days, depending on the size of the parents and other factors. Lesser vasa eggs hatch in 14 to 16 days. Two aviculturists documented this time frame, even though it's difficult to imagine that this parrot hatches its eggs in less time than a budgie.

The hatch time for greaters has been reported as 23 to 25 days. Dr. Roger Wilkinson, curator of birds at the Chester Zoo in England, carefully observed the actual laying and hatching dates of four eggs in 1991. Each egg hatched in 17 days!

In California, Arlene Chandler placed one greater egg in an incubator at 98.5 degrees Fahrenheit and left one with the hen. The incubator egg hatched during the 19th day after laying, and the hen hatched her egg in 17 days.

Greater hens shed the feathers on their heads when their babies are due to hatch. They also grow a small pouch of yellow skin under the lower mandible. The hen produces a clear liquid in this pouch that she probably feeds to the babies. Some of this substance gets on her feathers, giving them a wet, almost greasy, appearance.

Both greater and lesser hens are extremely demanding when they are feeding babies. Each hen in group situations practically forces at least two cocks to feed her, even though they only breed with one cock before laying the eggs.

Arlene Chandler has been feeding the incubator-hatched baby for three days as I am writing this article. That baby is eating two to three times as much food as a green-winged macaw at the same age. This need for a large amount of food explains why vasa hens may expect two males to feed them while raising babies.

Because of the great quantity of food they consume, vasas grow rapidly. Some lesser babies left with their parents fledged in about 32 days, but others did not fledge until they were 49 days old. The amount of available food for the babies may affect the actual age of fledging. Greater babies fledged in 45 to 50 days when fed by their parents. (To put this in perspective, African grey babies fledge in about 84 days and cockatiel babies fledge in 40 days.)

Availability

Importers are not bringing in any new groups of vasas. A few breeders are producing limited numbers of chicks from both species. Some vasas are still in pet stores in the United States and Canada. The best hope for people who want to breed vasas is to buy them from aviculturists who decide to sell their birds. As part of the vasa studbook service (see sidebar), I send out information twice a year to each participant. I also include the name and phone number of anyone who wants to buy or sell lessers or greaters.

Prices vary considerably among both species. I've paid from $200 to $700 for a single lesser and from $600 to $1,000 for a greater. Average prices are between $600 and $800 per bird.

Housing

Since vasas fly from perch to perch, they do very well in large cages. Some greater hens are so aggressive when in breeding condition that they will attack the males. These pairs need room for the cocks to escape. I placed a pair in breeding condition in a 3- by 4- by 4-foot cage one evening. The next morning I found the male on the bottom of the cage with bite marks on his legs and head, and fresh blood in his nostrils and mouth. He recovered in 48 hours with help from the local veterinarian.

One pair that contradicts the female aggression rule breed in a 2- by 3- by 4-foot cage. This pair is very compatible and the most prolific pair in the United States. It produced 18 babies since 1988.

Breeders use outdoor cages for vasas in California, Washington, Georgia, Florida and a few other states. Vasas should do well in indoor/outdoor cages in colder states.

One pair of greaters breeds in a 15-inch-square by 30-inch tall nest box. Other pairs have bred in different sizes and shapes of boxes. Vasas do not seem to have any specialized requirements, and any box appropriate to their size appears acceptable. We hope to know more about this aspect of husbandry in the future.

Diet

Vasas are willing eaters and thrive on any good diet. They will eat oranges, grapefruit, apples, grapes and many other fruits. They enjoy cranberries as a treat. Vasas try new foods and readily eat seeds, pellets and bean diets. They like most vegetables (corn is a special treat) and devour leafy greens.

My birds take great delight in ripping up kudzu, fresh pine limbs, pine cones, rawhide dog bones and any toys we place in their cages.

The Future of Vasas In Madagascar

The June 1, 1992 issue of Time magazine reports that "About 80 percent of the Madagascar's rain forests have already been cut to make charcoal and the land cleared for farming and ranching… Madagascar will be stripped bare in 35 years." Some vasas may adapt to the changed environment, but probably most will be lost.

Repopulation at a later date in Madagascar is an unrealistic goal. If deforestation stops now, the vasa population might be safe. Unfortunately for vasas, though, we see no indication of a plan for action to save the unique animals of this isolated island. As responsible aviculturists, however, we can influence the population status of the vasas here in the United States.

The Future of Vasas In the United States

Tracy Aviary, a publically owned operation in Salt Lake City, is committed to keeping five pairs of greaters and five pairs of lessers when funding permits. To the best of my knowledge, no zoos have long-range plans for vasas.

Approximately 30 aviculturists have one or more vasas in their collections. Most of these people appear very dedicated to keeping and sustaining their birds. If another 30 to 50 aviculturists are willing to devote a small portion of their space and money to the future welfare of vasas, we should be able to maintain them for generations to come. Aviculturists who are able to breed vasas will have to charge reasonable prices for the babies and be willing to share breeding information.

We need to promote the breeding of these unique species to save them for future generations. If we resist the temptation to keep vasas as pets and set up a comprehensive breeding program, we can build a viable population here in the United States. How unfortunate it will be if our grandchildren's only way to see the strange beauty of a vasa parrot is in a book.

 

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