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Vasa Parrots

by George A Smith

Over the years every genus and most species of parrot have been caught and kept as captives in alien climates. Some, such as the pygmy-parrots Micropsitta and Touit parrotlets, died before they would be exported. But many did reach their destination those that arrived in considerable numbers were sold cheaply while still plentiful in the wild, were not persisted with and some are now either extinct or rare as captives. Parrot-keepers, taken as a whole, are better at killing than breeding.

That a female Greater Vasa Coracopsis vasa, acquired in 1834 managed to survive for fifty years in the 'Parrot House' of London Zoo (Scalter 1884) is testimony to their surviving mismanagement better than most. Sclater noted (1884) how this female would, at times, protrude a fleshy mass from the cloacae. This and the fact that both sexes use this - much as dogs and ferrets the blood-inflated base to the penis - to firmly fasten a copulating couple. But it would be a mistake to use what is accepted as unique among birds (Wilkinson & Birkhead 1995) to separate vasas from other parrots when the fewer the facts the easier it is to draw mistaken conclusions.

Probably because they are black - Coracopsis means crow-like - vasa parrots are not favoured by those who make up the parrot keeping fraternity. We are, therefore, lucky that the minority who find them attractive provide us with observations that run counter to the tradition classification (e.g. Salvadori 1891, Peters 1937); Smith 1975; Forshaw 1993; Rowley & Collar 19 Juniper & Parr 1998) that links them to the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus and the Poicephalus parrots of Africa.

The first species of Vasa parrot to be described and, incidentally, illustrated was given the name of 'black-parrot' by Edwards (1750). Which, later, provided the specific name of the Lesser Vasa nigra. Except for a difference in size the only way of separating the Greater from the Lesser is that the former vasa has a straighter edge to the skin as it borders the bill.

We owe to Buffon (1779) the vernacular vaza- since corrupted to vasa for the Coracopsis parrots of Madagascar and some of its satellite islands. The first to describe the Greater Vasa Parrot C. vasa as distinct from the Lesser Vasa and, like Edwards before him, to provide a plate was Le Vaillant (1805). He, unlike Edwards and Buffon, knew both as living birds and, from moving with such ('swiftness and ease... was marvellously graceful, that no bird is as friendly, gentle and affection...that it readily learnt to whistle parts of certain melodies... and although never able... to repeat words... the sound of a creaking door... filing an iron bar... sawing wood') thought vasa parrots were different from all other parrots.

But here I am jumping the gun. Where I should have started is when Africa, Madagascar, India and Asia became independent land-masses they, by contrast with South America and Australia-New Guinea, had no parrots. What they have today, as is obvious from comparative anatomy and behaviour (Smith 1975 shows that the twenty-two species making the five genera of African and Madagascan parrots and the two genera and thirteen species in Asia and India could only have come from the far smaller combination of land mass that now forms South and Middle America, plus Australia-New Guinea, plus the Indian and Pacific Ocean with their sixty-five genera and well over two hundred species.

From anatomy, feather pattern, colour, and behaviour the ancestors of the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus and the Poicephalus parrots came to Africa from South America in a possible, "reverse exchange" with monkeys and hystricomorphic rodents. Whereas the Ringneck spectacular krameri and the lovebirds Agapornis came into Africa from Australia -New Guinea via Asia. It seems from what follows that the ancestors of vasa parrots also came from Australia and not South America.

Compared with the nearest adjacent mainland evolution on isolated oceanic islands such as Madagascar and New Zealand can be extremely rapid. Taking the Kakapo Strigops habroptilis of New Zealand as an example less than twelve million years of isolation from its origin with what is now the Night Parrot Geopsittacus occidentalis of Australia it has become flightless, monstrous in size, and fulfils the grazing niche occupied by rodents and rabbits of similar size. For all the seeming differences the similar pattern of colour and markings to feathers, that it is nocturnal, and share the same, otherwise unique, round-end to the yellow upper mandible, shows the relationship. The Nestor parrots of New Zealand are now sufficiently distinctive to be given separate status although anatomically, and behaviourally, they are giant lories. Although the kakarikis, Cyanoramphus of New Zealand now differ greatly from the Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius and the Many-coloured Parakeet of Australia we know from their forming viable hybrids with these, that they are 'brothers under the skin'.

Back now to the vasa parrots which Vigors (1827),( Selby 1836) found reason to be included not with the African Grey and Poicephalids but with the Australian parrots. For, as Russ (1882) mentioned the cere, tail and wing feathers, of vasa parrots are so different from the Grey Parrot that 'the amateur might scarcely consider them as related where it not that the scientific observer regards them as such'. He was also the first to notice that when their feathers, for one reason or another no longer made melanin they became white because like the three macaws belong to the genus Anodorhynchus and Spix's Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii of South America and two species of Vini lorikeet vasa parrots do not have the pigment that gives the 'warm' colours of yellow, orange and red to parrot feathers. Not that we can use this to link the vasa parrots to American or Australian-derived parrots.

Moreau (1966) put forward the suggestion that most of Madagascar birds originated in Africa. If he is correct in this for the vasa parrots then it could be that vasa parrots share a common origin with the Grey Psittacus erithacus and the Poicephalus parrots. However as the history of grouping plants and animals has so often shown in the past it depends as much on ignorance, on assumption, and on tradition, as it does on evidence and is often brought to greater error by arranging the species according to what, at the time, appeared to have most importance. Today changes found in one, or very few genes wrongly are given precedence over many more genes that determine similarity and differences in their anatomy, of their feathers, in behaviour and the appearance of the fresh-hatched chick.

When I first saw vasa parrots (1985) they were avidly basking and seemed oblivious to anything other than that by spreading their wings and tail to the maximum extent, standing smaller feathers on end, and by lying on their sides with eyes half-closed they could expose the maximum area of skin to the sun's heat. Otherwise sun-bathing to such an overt degree is restricted to Australian parrots. Then when I came to examine preserved vasa parrots in museums it was found that the second, third and fifth primary feathers - from the end of wing - by having much the same length are similar to those of the Australian Eclectus parrot. That the length and broadness of their tail feathers is similar to the Australian black cockatoos Calyptorhynchus. Further, like the Australian parrots the tail feathers of vasa parrots have 'ghostly' barring.

What if vasa parrots copulate differently from other parrots and in doing so sit side by side when, the male by not putting his near-side foot on the female's back is similar to Australian parrots or so I must assume the Grey and the Poicephalid parrots whose copulatory pattern has yet to be described.

I do know is that like many Australian and Australian derived parrots a male vasa feeding his mate does so with the neck extended so far that it cannot but seem that he is frightened of her. The bill of both sexes of vasa parrots, contrary to the opinion of the early authors, loses melanin as sex-hormones rise. What captive-breeding also shows is how rising female sex-hormones causes head feathers to loosen and for the now exposed skin to become yellowish-orange.

While vasa parrots follow the general pattern of the larger the bird the larger the egg. The bigger the egg the longer the incubation perid and the more protracted is the interval between hatching and fledging. Where vasas are unique among parrots is that - although relatively large - incubation and fledging time are ridiculously short. The minimum in other parrots, usually smaller than vasa parrots, have an incubation time of 19 days and fledge at six or seven weeks old, the Lesser Vasa takes 14 to 15 days to hatch its eggs, the Greater Vasa between 15 and 16 days and the chicks of both fledge five weeks from hatching. (Low 1989; Wilkinson et al 1990, 1995; Schreuders & Barbanson 2003).

Like the Australian-derived parrots the beak of the fresh hatched vasa parrot is covered by hard keratin. The Grey, like the American and the poicephalid parrots differ by having soft, sensitive, margins to the upper and lower mandible. Vasas, however are distinct in that instead of the 'barbs' normal to the arrow-shaped tip of a young parrot they have instead firm, bulbous swellings which from their size and position, give the appearance of a club on a playing card. However, day by day, these gradually reduce so that by three weeks of age, the beak is no different from Australian parrots.

Birds like Vasa Parrots which breed once a year will lose a year if their eggs are infertile. Hence hen birds will cuckold their mate if he is absent finding food or defending territory. But few other birds have the strident, repetitive, soliciting call of hen vasa parrots. Their polyandry, therefore, differs from that of the Eclectus, Ringneck, Alexandrine, Plumhead and Red-rumped parrot by it being normal for male Vasa Parrots to have many 'wives' who, during the whole course of incubation and before, and for the first few weeks of brooding the chicks are utterly reliant for food and water on what is brought them by their several 'husbands' responding to their siren calls. This contrasts with the breeding behaviour of New World parrots where none are known to be polyandrous.

As island evolution is relatively rapid it could be that what the vasa parrots share in common with the Australian parrots like the wing of a bat, a bird, and an insect, are examples of convergence. This is why in search for further similarity and possible difference, I now have five of my seven Greater Vasa Parrots - two female and three males - housed and hopefully breeding, in a six metre high, five metre wide and twenty metre long aviary of a friend.

REFERENCES

Buffon, G.L.L. 1779-1786 Histoire naturelle des oiseaux. Paris.
Edwards, G 1750 A natural history of Uncommon birds.
Forshaw, J 1993 Parrots of the World David & Charles: London
Juniper, T& Parr,M 1998 Parrots. A guide to the Parrots of the World. Pica Press: Sussex
Le Vaillant, F 1805 Histoire Naturelle des Paroquets. Paris.
Low, R 1989 Hand rearing the Lesser Vasa Parrot Coracopsis niga Avicult. Mag 95: 169-175
Moreau, R.E. 1966 The bird faunas of Africa and its islands Academic Press: New York, London.
Rowley, I., & Collar, N.J. 1977 Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol. 4 sand grouse to cuckoos, Lynx Edicions. Barcelona
Salvadori, T., 1894. Catalogue of the Birds in the British Museum. Vol. 20
Russ K 1882 Die Sprechenden Papageien
Schreuuders A & de Barbanson T 2003 Lesser Vasa Parrots/Black Parrots Coracopsis nigra The Parrot Soc. Mag 37:174-179
Sclater, P.L 1893 Proc Zool soc London page 435
Sclater P.L.1894 pages 410 and 502
Selby P.R. 1836 The Natural History of Parrots. Vol. IV in Jardines The Naturalist's Library.
Smith G.A. 1975 Systematics of Parrots. Ibis 117:18-66
Smith G.A. 1985 Vasa Parrots Parrot society Mag 19; 70-74
Vigors R. 1827 Zool. Journ. 111.244
Wilkinson. R. 1990 Notes on the breeding behaviour of Greater Vasa Parrots Coracopsis vasa at Chester Zoo. Avicult. Mag 96:115-122
Wilkinson R., Pilgrim, M Woolham A., and West B. 1992 Incubation and nesting periods of lesser and Greater Vasa Parrots. Avicult Mag., 98; 17-21
Wilkinson R. Birkhead TR 1995 Copulation behaviour in the Vasa Parrots Coracopsis nigra & C vasa Ibis 137; 117-119

 
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