The Resplendent Quetzal: The Most Beautiful Bird in the World
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.
The Resplendent Quetzal
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, 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.
The Quetzal Is the Symbol of Guatemala: It Appears on the Flag, Coins, and Stamps.Click thumbnail to view full-size
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.
A Male Quetzal
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.
The Calls of Queztrals
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 Showing 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.
Quetzals Building a Nest
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. Click the links for more information about quetzals.
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© 2014 Catherine Giordano