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Greater Vasa Parrot

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Is the Greater Vasa Parrot right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: Vasa Parrot; Western Vasa Parrot (C. v. drouhardi); Comoro Vasa Parrot (C. v. comorensis)

Scientific name: Coracopsis vasa

The basics:
The Greater Vasa Parrot is an endearing “so ugly it's cute” primitive parrot from Madagascar and some of the nearby Comoro Islands. In this species, the female is dominant and defends a territory where she may be partnered with multiple males. Perhaps because they lack a strong pair bond, pet Greater Vasas often turn out to be mellow birds that can go to anyone in the family.

The island of Madagascar, home of the Greater Vasa Parrot, may be small, but it's truly the so-called eighth continent in terms of its rich population of unique and rare species. Since Madagascar broke away from the Indian subcontinent some 88 million years ago, the birds, lemurs, and other species have been free to evolve along their own unusual lines, without much contact with mainland Africa. The Greater Vasa Parrot doesn't just look different. It is different.

The females don't spend much time sitting around. Captive pairs bury their eggs and chicks in nesting materials in the nest box, and perhaps they do the same thing in cavity nests in the wild. The incubation period itself runs 17 or 18 days, which is close to a record short incubation period for a parrot, although the Lesser Vasa Parrot takes first prize with an incubation period at around 14 days. A female Greater Vasa spends much of her time defending her territory – and her multiple males – from other females.

There are three subspecies, two of which come from Madagascar proper, and one which comes from some of the Comoro Islands. In Madagascar, the Greater Vasa is bold, outspoken, and easy to find. They might not be the most beautiful species in the country, but they show themselves boldly, and they make their presence known in small flocks or by posing high in a dead tree to silhouette themselves against the sky. They are known to use lookouts to watch from the heights for danger.

Appearance:
The Greater Vasa isn't just another pretty face, since this large off-black, rather lanky parrot's comical profile has been compared to everything from a turtle to a vulture. The female Greater Vasa Parrot has an unusual molt that you should be prepared for. When she enters breeding season, she will molt off her head feathers, and the exposed skin on her head will turn bright yellow, accentuating the odd appearance of this unusual bird. The body feathers will also change color from gray-black to more of a brown. The cloaca on both the male and female will also swell visibly when the birds are in season, so if you're squeamish about that kind of thing, the Vasa Parrot might not be the right pet for you. The male in particular develops what has been variously described as an enlarged cloaca or a hemi-penis, allowing the birds to lock together when they mate.

Weight:
480 grams (17 oz.)

Average size:
50 centimeters (20 in.)

Lifespan:
30+ years

Behavior / temperament:
Greater Vasa Parrots look and act as if they have a sense of humor. They love to play with toys, and many of them have channeled their exceptional vocal control into speech. They may whistle, develop a wide vocabulary, or both. They are capable of independent play, but they do need attention, and this highly intelligent bird should never be neglected or ignored. They are not common pets, but the people who own them are often lavish with their praise.

Because they don't really have much of a pair bond, they can be friends with the whole family, even during the breeding season. However, the female Greater Vasa in particular may have a territorial drive at that time, so be aware of how to handle an aggressive parrot so that you can easily move her from the cage, which she may instinctively defend, to the play gym, which is more neutral territory.

Breeders have reported that hormonal females have killed their mates, but some of these deaths may be attributable to a failure to understand that the breeding Greater Vasa female really expects and demands the attention of at least two males. A busy family, with plenty of people and toys to keep the bird busy, should not face the same issues as you might expect from, say, a hyper-hormonal male Yellow-naped Amazon. Most people describe their pets as affectionate, and there are even a few people who call them shy. Respect individual differences, and treat your bird with kindness and respect, and you may be impressed beyond your wildest dreams by this unique character.

Housing:
Greater Vasa Parrots are active, busy pets who require a lot of room for independent play when you can't be at home. A powder-coated metal cage intended for a small macaw might not be too much for these birds, and the recommended minimum size for a single bird is 36”w x 24”d x 36”h with no more than 1” bar spacing. They are extremely playful and benefit from a wide variety of chew, puzzle, and foraging toys.

If possible, a walk-in aviary, conservatory, or Florida room (with bird-safe plants only) might be the way to go. The Greater Vasa Parrot loves to get out in the open and bathe in the sun, but make sure there is always a place where the bird can go to be out of the sun. They will also bathe both in “puddles” (sold in stores as shallow dog dishes) or in clean dust. They invest a lot of time in making themselves beautiful, so it's best to humor them on that score.

Have a play gym with lots of toys where they can be out with the family and interact with their people. Make sure that you teach your Greater Vasa to step on and off a hand-held perch on command. The females, in particular, can become territorial and aggressive when they're in the mating season, so you need to be confident in your ability to handle your pet even when it's feeling moody.

Diet:
Wild Greater Vasa Parrots eat a diverse diet that includes nuts, seeds, fruits, and cultivated grains, and successful breeders report that these birds benefit from a varied diet – and plenty of it. They may look long and lean, but they have a healthy appetite. A good diet includes a high quality pellet, a quality seed mix, soaked or sprouted seeds, a good quality commercial or home recipe for a bean/grain/brown rice mix, and a hefty serving of chopped salad that includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Owners and breeders report over and over again that these birds eat an unusual amount of food for their size, so be prepared. Favorite treats include banana and mango, but never feed avocado or chocolate, as these two foods are toxic to all parrots.

Written by Elaine Radford

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