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The Resplendent Quetzal: The Most Beautiful Bird in the World

I'm an author of a book of essays. My poems, essays, and short fiction have appeared in magazines and anthologies.

The resplendent quetzal has spectacular coloration.

The resplendent quetzal has spectacular coloration.

What Is the Quetzal?

The resplendent quetzal, native to Central America, is indeed splendid. The name quetzal comes from the Aztec word “quetzalli” which means precious or beautiful.

It is sometimes called “The Rare Jewel Bird of the World” by people native to Central America. This bird is closely associated with the snake god Quetzalcoatl.

I first became aware of the quetzal about 25 years ago when I went to Guatemala to adopt my son.

I discovered that the quetzal is an important part of the identity of Guatemala. Pictures of the quetzal appear on the country’s flag, coat of arms, currency, and postage stamps. Souvenir items often feature the quetzal.

The bird was sacred to the ancient Maya population, and it figures prominently in Mayan artwork and legends. The colorful feathers of the quetzal were worn by royalty and priests during ceremonies. In Mayan times, it was forbidden to kill it.

Quetzals are the symbol of liberty in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

The birds are reclusive. Despite their brightly-colored plumage, they can be hard to spot in their natural wooded habitats.

How Are Quetzals Classified in Taxonomy?

According to taxonomy, the scientific classification of all life on earth, the resplendent quetzal is a bird in the trogonidae family, in the genus trogon, and the species name is Pharomachrus mocinno.

The name is from the ancient Greek: pharos meaning, "mantle" (the outer feathers of the wings look like they are a cloak across the bird’s back when in a folded position) and macros meaning "long” (referring to the tail feathers).

Where Do Quetzals Live?

Resplendent quetzals live in the canopy of trees in the cloud forests of Central America. In addition to Guatemala, quetzals live in the rain forests of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama.

Cloud forests are high-altitude tropical or subtropical forests that usually have a large amount of cloud-cover or fog.

What Do Quetzals Look Like?

As with many species, it is the males who are resplendent, while the females are a bit dowdy.

The male quetzal has brightly colored tail feathers, which can be up to three feet long. The head, neck, chest, back and wings of the males are a metallic or iridescent green. The breast and belly are bright crimson. The male also has a crest at the top of his head—a distinct tuft of bristly upstanding golden-green feathers.

The female quetzals are far less conspicuous than males. The head of the female ranges from smoky-gray to bronze tinged with green at the edgings. The breast is sometimes gray or a muted shade of red, far less vibrant than the male coloration.

Quetzals have large black eyes—their large eyes help them see in the dim light conditions of the rainforest. The beaks are yellow (for males) or black (for females).

The feet of the quetzal, like all birds in the Trogon family, are very unusual. They have four toes on each foot (two in front and two in back). The first and second toes point rearward and are immovable: the third and fourth toes point forward. This configuration makes their feet very weak.

Quetzals have very thin skin that tears easily. Their thick plumage provides them with some protection.

The quetzal is about the size of a pigeon. It is about 13 to 16 inches long, not counting the tail plumes that the male grows during mating season. The birds weigh only about one-half pound.

What Do Quetzals Sound Like?

Quetzals are said to emit deep melodious calls that may echo far through the forest. They have different calls for different situations. The male has a particular call that he uses to mark his territory.

Quetzals are most vocal during calm, cloudy dawns and during misty afternoons. They do not vocalize much on bright days or on windy days.

What Do Quetzals Eat?

Quetzals prefer to eat fruits and berries. Their favorite food is aguacatillo, a miniature avocado, which they swallow whole, later spitting out the seed.

However, they are omnivores and will also eat insects, insect larvae, and small forest animals like lizards and frogs.

How Well Can Quetzals Fly?

The resplendent quetzal is not a strong flyer. They can only fly short distances at a time in order to find food and shelter. The birds must live where there are plenty of trees so they can stop to rest frequently.

A souvenir plaque purchased in Guatemala showing two quetzals.

A souvenir plaque purchased in Guatemala showing two quetzals.

How Do Quetzals Mate?

Mating occurs from April through June. During mating season, the male quetzal grows long, colorful tail feathers in order to attract a mate (the females do not grow the tail feathers.)

The male dances to get the attention of a female. If she is interested, she will mirror his movements until they have a synchronized dance in place.

During courtship, the male may spiral high above the canopy and then plunge down to the female, his long tail feathers rippling behind him.

Quetzals are seasonally monogamous and are very selective when it comes to choosing a mate.

Where Do Quetzals Nest?

The newly-formed quetzal pair work together to build their nest. They use their powerful beaks to hollow out a hole in rotted trees or stumps. They build their nests within these hollows. Sometimes they will use the abandoned nests of other birds, like woodpeckers or a nest from the previous year. They simply spruce up the old nests.

They don’t add nesting materials as many other kinds of birds do. The female lays two to three pale-blue eggs on the bare floor of the nest.

The quetzal pair takes turns sitting on the eggs—usually, the male sits on the eggs during the day, and the female sits on them at night. The long tails of the males often stick outside the nest.

They tend to live alone and be very protective of their territory. The only time they pair up is for mating and caring for the young.

How Are Quetzal Offspring Raised?

The eggs hatch in about 17 to 18 days. When the young are born, both parents will care for them and bring them food.

The female abandons the young near the end of the rearing period, but the male remains to continue to care for the fledglings. The male will continue to bring them food for a few more weeks; then, the young have to fend for themselves. Young quetzals can fly at about three weeks of age.

The hatchlings resemble females in coloration.

How Long Do Quetzals Live?

The life span of the quetzal is unknown. It is assumed to be about three to ten years by some.

Are Quetzals an Endangered Species?

Quetzals are classified as “near threatened.” They are under threat of extinction in Guatemala and elsewhere in the world.

The primary reason for their threatened status is the disappearance of the woodlands and forests that are their natural habitats. The removal of dead trees from the forest also threatens these birds because if they do not have a place to build a nest, they will not mate.

In some areas, most notably Costa Rica’s cloud forests, protected lands preserve the habitat of the quetzal. The preserves provide opportunities for eco-tourists and bird watchers to see these birds in their natural habitat. If their native habits are not preserved, they will go extinct.

Quetzals rarely reproduce in captivity. The first quetzal ever born in captivity was in 2003. Since then, a few others have been born in a zoo. The breeding program hopes to be able to introduce some of them into the wild.

If their native habits are not preserved, they will go extinct.

References and Resources

The following sources were used for this article.

The Resplendent Quetzal

Quetzal: a-z animals

NeoTropical Birds: Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal Breeding Program

The resplendent quetzal does not thrive in captivity. There are only two zoos where they can be seen: ZooMAT in Chiapas, Mexico and Zoo Ave in Costa Rica.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano


Zechariah on May 15, 2019:

What the bird called again? That have a long tail and it's is green

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 04, 2016:

Greensleeves Hubs: I enjoyed reading your comment very much. You were so lucky to see one of these magnificent birds. I have never seen one in person. Thanks for your comment. It truly adds to this article about quetzals.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on April 03, 2016:

Way back in 2001 I went on an escorted tour of Costa Rica, and although we travelled to all parts of the country the focal point of the tour was to see a quetzal. It was hyped as 'the most beautiful bird in the world' but I wondered if it was just that - hype. When something is billed in such glowing terms, it rarely lives up to expectation.

Anyway on the day when we were up in its natural habitat in the cloud forests, we went out walking in search of this bird. It took a while but eventually our guide located a pair, and being the breeding season, the male had its long tail feathers in place. And I can honestly say it exceeded expectation - our brief glance of the quetzal (no more than a few minutes) was the highlight of the tour, and perhaps the ornithological highlight of my life. As you say, it's a large bird, but all with the brilliant irridescence one associates with tiny hummingbirds.

One point I would make - although the males are usually described as having green feathers over much of their body, the one I saw appeared more cyan or turquoise coloured. But that is not a dispute. It's merely a consequence of the irridescent effect whereby the light reflecting off the body changes the apparent colour of the feathers.

Anyway, the point of all these reminiscences is to emphasise that the quetzal is indeed a truly fantastic bird to see, and a bird which must be saved from any possibility of extinction at all costs. Good hub Catherine. Nicely laid out.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 08, 2015:

Thank you, Austinstar. I loved writing this because I first learned about the quetzal when I went to Guatemala to adopt my son. Fond memories. I share your admiration for the Mayans. The Mayans had a great civilization in their day.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on January 08, 2015:

Great hub! I love anything to do with the topic of the Maya or Central America.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 24, 2014:

Thank you Alicia. It was my pleasure to write about this beautiful bird.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 23, 2014:

What a beautiful bird! This is a lovely hub that is very interesting. Congratulations on Hub of the Day!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 23, 2014:

Thank you lambservent: The children of Guatemala are as beautiful as the birds.

lambservant on October 23, 2014:

Stunning bird and I love their call. My grandson Max was adopted from Guatemala. He loves learning things about his native land. I will perhaps give him this information. Congrats on Hub of the Day.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 22, 2014:

Thank you TimeTravler. I'm glad you enjoyed it. You are right. The birds of the region are spectacular.

Sondra Rochelle from USA on October 22, 2014:

I don't know what it is about Latin America, but they produce the most gorgeous birds. This one is lovely, that's for sure. Great usual.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 16, 2014:

Scifi: The males are more colorful because they have to attract a mate. Vibrant color means good health. The females of many species are drab because it makes them less likely to be seen by predators. Nature wants to protect the females since they provide the next generation.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 16, 2014:

techy: Thank you for your comment. I had never head of the quetzal either until I went to Guatemala. Come to think of it, I have never herd of it since.

scifidimension from United States on October 15, 2014:

I think many male birds are more colorful than the drab female ones just like the peacock and the peahen. Which I find really curious hehehe. Really interesting hub. I wish to see one personally one day, but people should preserve their habitat first

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 15, 2014:

Beautiful bird that I knew nothing about, Catherine. Thank you for providing so much detail-- now I would like to go to the bird sanctuary in Costa Rica and see one! Congratulations on the HOTD! ~Cynthia

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Melanie: Thank you. Praise from a bird whisperer is high praise indeed. I know there are many beautiful birds. I just got carried away when I said the quetzal was the MOST beautiful.

Melanie Wilcox from Pennsylvania, USA on October 15, 2014:

nice article :) There are so many beautiful birds in the world. I'm thought of as a bit of a "bird whisperer" I love them! again, nicely written hub

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Thank you janshares for your praise. My third HOTD in just two months--excuse my boasting, but I am proud of myself. (The competition must be greater than ever with the thousands of hubs being imported by former squids.) I can only wish I had shot the video. I have never seen a live quetzal. They are hard to see--they stay high in the tree canopy.

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on October 15, 2014:

Catherine, this hub is awesome, never heard of nor seen a quetzel. You did a beautiful job of presenting this bird to us. It's so informative and interesting to see yet another species of bird. I really like the video about making the nest. At first, I thought the male was just going to watch and supervise, lol. But when he joined in, by switching roles, I thought okay, this is a partnership. :) Did you shoot the video yourself. Amazing hub, congrats on another HOTD. Voted up and interesting.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Thank you so much Victoria. I put a lot of hours into it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Victoria Austin on October 15, 2014:

Congrats on HOTD! You really deserve it for such a wonderful and beautiful Hub. God bless.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Thank you Success8, Paynes, Keywc: I had to do a lot of research for this article, as I do for most of my articles--one of the rewards of writing these hubs is how much I learn. The peacock is also a beautiful bird. Saying the quetzal is the most beautiful bird in the world is hyperbole because there are so many beautiful birds. But, wants to read an article about a "fairly pretty" bird.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Thank you Cherish, Suze, and Chitrangada for your comment. I really appreciate that you took the time to comment and congratulate.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Virginia, thanks for the idea about the map. I saw some when I did my research so I can probably easily add a map. The quetzal is found in Central America and in Mexico. When you visit Costa Rica, be sure to visit the Zoo Ave. It is only one of two zoos that have them.

Virginia Kearney from United States on October 15, 2014:

A very complete description of this bird. We are going to Costa Rica this summer and I'm hoping to get a chance to see them. I have done similar hubs on owls and roadrunners and I really like the way a Hub format allows you to include all the information and videos. Terrific job and a model hub. I'd suggest including a map showing where people can find them. I think hubs like this are often used in schools.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 15, 2014:

Beautiful hub on the quetzal, Catherine. I, too, think they are the most beautiful bird in the world. Not many people know about this gorgeous bird. You are so fortunate to have seen them while in Guatemala. Your photos of them are stunning also. Thanks so much for educating us on the quetzal and congratulations on HOTD!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 15, 2014:

Congratulations for a well deserved HOTD!

Thanks for introducing this beautiful bird and the wonderful details. I have not seen it before, nor heard about it. The pictures and the video is so interesting.

Thanks for sharing!

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 15, 2014:

I'm back to say Congratulations on HOTD! Terrific job and such an unusual topic!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 15, 2014:

Thank you for your kind comments--Victoria, Examiner, and Heidi. And thanks to the quetzal, which may or may not be the most beautiful bird in the world, for inspiring me to write this hub.

Keywc on October 15, 2014:

Nice hub, very informative. How did you learn so much about this beautiful bird? Did you get more of your information from research or actual bird watching?

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 15, 2014:

Beautiful photos and great info make this definitely deserving of your Hub of Day Award. Congrats!

PaynesGrey on October 15, 2014:

Beautiful Hub, very interesting facts and lovely images. I must admit I hadn't of the bird before but did think the name resembled Quetzalcotl.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 15, 2014:

Congrats on the HOTD Catherine!

mySuccess8 on October 15, 2014:

It is definitely a very beautiful bird. I have seen and known a number of beautiful birds, including the peacock, but this one is special, as you have very well described in the Hub, and also being a symbol of liberty in a number of countries. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

The Examiner-1 on October 15, 2014:

I read this already Catherine, I am only writing to congratulate you on HOD for it.


Victoria Austin on October 15, 2014:

That was very interesting. I love the way you were able to get facts separated into sections like that. I have never seen that bird this was the first time I have read about it. If my husband and I had children I would have loved to buy it in book form so they can learn because When I was able to hear with hearing aides I use to sit or walk around outside to listen, and I would watch the birds. That is a pretty bird. My favorite which I have always thought is the most beautiful bird in the entire work is the Peacock because of its gorgeous tail when it spreads it. OH MY GOODNESS! Then comes the White Dove because to Me it represents purity. Just thought I might WGAT. Thank you so very much for your article, and God bless you.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on October 11, 2014:

That makes sense now.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 10, 2014:

Thanks Audrey. If not the most l, surely one of the most beautiful birds.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 10, 2014:

Suhall: maybe the bones were found in Mexico. Quetzal is also part of the name of a Mayan god, Quetzalcotl.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 10, 2014:

I can see why you assert this claim for this bird--just gorgeous!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on October 10, 2014:

Those will be great links, Catherine.

Btw, I don't know why they named a big prehistoric bird, the biggest pterosaur, quetzalcoatlus.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 10, 2014:

Thank you Suhail for your comment Guatemala and Costa Rica are the places to go to see quetzals in the wild. You gave me an idea. I will research where to see quetzals in parks or zoos and add it to my post.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on October 10, 2014:

As a nature lover, I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Quetzal is a very beautiful bird indeed. I would love to see it one day, perhaps in a bird park somewhere.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 09, 2014:

Kevin, thank you so much for your appreciation of my hub. Quetzals are beautiful and not very well-known.

The Examiner-1 on October 09, 2014:

I thought this was a very well written Hub Catherine, you seem to have covered everything needed and still composed it pleasantly. I easily understood it. I voted up, shared and pinned it.


Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 08, 2014:

Thanks so much for your vote. I agree they probably wouldn't like to be cuddled. They don't even like the company of other quetzals much and they don't do well in captivity. But, as you said, the pictures are so cute.

Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on October 08, 2014:

What a cute little bird! I'd love to cuddle one, but I don't think they'd be up for it. It was interesting to read that they eat small lizards. An awesome hub, so voted awesome!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 08, 2014:

Thanks Iris. I appreciate your comment. I did not know about birds not eating avocado, I wonder why.

Cristen Iris from Boise, Idaho on October 07, 2014:

That was really interesting. I had a red-cheeked conyer (spelling?) and was told not to feed it avocado because the bird would die. I thought that was a general bird rule of thumb, so I found it very interesting that these eat a kind of avocado. Ooooo, and yes, Flourish, excellent Scrabble or Bananagrams word. Who want to play?!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 07, 2014:

Thank you for your comments Goat, SAQ, Gwen: It is really cheering to see your kind words.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 07, 2014:

Florish: I laughed at "good Scrabble word." You are so right. I will have to remember that word. A Q and a Z--put it on a triple word square and you have won the game.

Gwenneth Leane on October 06, 2014:

I enjoyed your article about the Quetzal. There are truly some beautiful birds in the world

SAQIB from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN on October 06, 2014:

Beautiful Bird. Well explained, Its looks like a rare species to me ans perhaps a rare one.

Andrew Smith from Richmond, VA on October 06, 2014:

Good looking Hub, Catherine! I feel like you're really knowledgeable on the subject.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 06, 2014:

How beautiful. I have never heard of this bird and enjoyed learning here. Plus, this is an awesome Scrabble word.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on October 06, 2014:

Thanks Jodah and teaches. There are many beautiful birds. I called this one the most beautiful because I found it called that in my research. I learned a lot about quetzals as I researched this and I'm glad I got to share what I learned. The hardest part of this was that websites gave contradictory info on some points and so I had to do extra research to find out which one was right.

Dianna Mendez on October 06, 2014:

The male Quetzal is so beauiful. I like the shared parenting they do! Lovely post and so well done.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 06, 2014:

Very impressive hub Catherine. I now know everything I need to know about the Quetzal....knew nothing before. It is a beautiful bird, but I think the most beautiful are some of the "birds of paradise" from Papua New Guinea. Voted up.