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The Vasa Parrot, a Psittacine Rule-Breaker

Vasa ParrotLike much of Madagascar’s wildlife, the Vasa Parrot (or Greater Vasa Parrot, Coracopis vasa) stands apart from related species in both appearance and behavior.  Somberly-colored and with a heavy, slow mode of flight, airborne Vasa Parrots have been described as resembling “elongated, ragged crows”!  However, it’s unique natural history and interesting behavior more than make up for the lack of colorful plumage, and interest among both ornithologists and hobbyists is growing each year.

Natural History

Vasa Parrots are limited in distribution to Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands.  They were introduced to Reunion Island but appear not to have become established.

They favor forest edges but forage in savanna and other open habitats; in some areas they raid corn crops and are hunted for that reason.  Flocks of up to 200 have been reported in the past, but populations are now likely declining due to severe habitat loss.

Vasa Parrots reportedly move about on moonlit nights and often feed in the company of starlings, bulbuls and other species.

The closely related Lesser Vasa or Black Parrot, Coracopis nigra, (please see photo) is less common and not well-established in captivity.

Unique Color-Changing Abilities

The Vasa Parrot is distinguished from most other parrots by its brownish-black plumage, broad, heavy bill and long legs and neck.  At breeding time, however, females pull off a stunt that is unequalled in the parrot world – some of their feathers change color (to brown) without going through a molt!  This phenomenon is believed to hinge upon changes in the distribution of melanin, but has not been well-studied.

In addition, they shed the feathers at the top of their heads, and the underlying skin becomes yellow.  The males’ skin darkens to almost black, and they sprout an orange or yellow wattle below the lower bill.

Unusual Reproductive Strategies

Vasa Parrots are also rule-breakers when it comes to reproduction.  While similarly-sized parrots incubate their eggs for an average of 30 days, those of the Vasa hatch in approximately half that time – 14 to17 days.  The chicks feed ravenously and fledge in a mere 45 days or so, again in about half the time usually taken by other parrots.

Female Vasa Parrots are, in general, the more aggressive sex, usually fight if housed together at breeding time; there are reports of females killing their mates as well.  Wild females mate with up to 5 males, all of which then provide food while the females are incubating.  Males may mate with several females as well.

Females defend the area around the nest-hole and call loudly (males do not); those with the strongest calls attract the most males.  It is theorized that their brightly-colored, featherless heads act as a mate attractant as well.

Vasa Parrots as Pets

Vasa Parrots are being bred in captivity but, perhaps due to their plain plumage, are not very popular.  They are, however, highly recommended by most owners and form strong bonds with people if handled properly.

Vasas are extremely active and inquisitive and are harder on toys, perches and cage bars than most other medium-sized parrots.  They must be kept busy if they are to thrive, and fare best in outdoor aviaries and large cages.  Most individuals are rather quiet by parrot standards.

Further Reading

Vasa Parrot reproduction is even odder than described above!  Please see this Ibis article for details.

Video of a playful Vasa Parrot.


Vasa Parrot image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Snowmanradio

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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