BIRD OF THE WEEK: December 20, 2019 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pharomachrus mocinno
POPULATION: Approximately 50,000 individuals
IUCN STATUS: Near Threatened
TREND: Decreasing
HABITAT: Montane cloud forest

Resplendent Quetzal range map, NatureServe

The national bird of Guatemala, the Resplendent Quetzal is also found from southern Mexico to western Panama.

The Resplendent Quetzal is an unforgettable sight, with shimmering plumage of metallic blues, greens, and reds. Males also have a crest of bristly golden-green feathers and during breeding season, grow elongated uppertail feathers that form a long, flowing train. This spectacular species belongs to the trogon family, a group of colorful, fruit-eating birds found in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Other family members include the Golden-headed Quetzal and Haiti's national bird, the Hispaniolan Trogon.

Considered sacred by several Mesoamerican civilizations, the Resplendent Quetzal remains culturally significant to this day.

Sacred Symbol

The Resplendent Quetzal likely inspired Quetzalcoatl, the “plumed serpent” god of Mesoamerica. Legend has it that Quetzalcoatl helped create Earth. Rulers and nobility wore headdresses made from this trogon's shining green feathers, which symbolically connected them to the god.

It was considered a crime to kill a quetzal, so the plumes were procured by capturing the bird, plucking its long tail feathers, and setting it free. In several Mesoamerican languages, the term for quetzal can also mean "precious" or "sacred."

The iridescent green tail feathers also symbolized spring plant growth to the Aztecs and Mayans, who viewed the quetzal as the "god of the air" and as a symbol of goodness and light. The Mayans also viewed the quetzal as a symbol of freedom (due to the difficulty of keeping them in captivity) and wealth, as its feathers were used as money. Even today, the currency of Guatemala is called the quetzal.

The Resplendent Quetzal is also the national bird of Guatemala, pictured on the country's flag and coat of arms. It was thought to be the spirit guide of a Mayan prince and hero, Tecún Umán, who fought against the Spanish conquest. According to legend, Tecún Umán was killed as he fought the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. As Tecún Umán lay dying, a quetzal flew down and landed on his chest, dipping its feathers in the hero's blood. This is supposedly how the bird acquired its red breast and belly feathers.

Marvel of Middle America

Two subspecies of Resplendent Quetzal are recognized, ranging from southern Mexico through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica south to western Panama. Resplendent Quetzals inhabit undisturbed montane forests up to 10,500 feet in elevation. After the breeding season, they may move to lower elevations.

This is a relatively solitary species, pairing up only during the breeding season, or sometimes gathering at heavily fruiting trees.

Gardener of the Forest

Like the Keel-billed Toucan and the Oilbird, the Resplendent Quetzal is mainly fruit-eating (frugivorous). This bird favors fruits of the avocado family, which it swallows whole before regurgitating the pits. In this way, the quetzal acts as a "gardener," helping to disperse trees throughout forests. Its diet also includes insects, small frogs, snails, and lizards. Quetzals pluck fruits while hovering, or swoop out from a hidden perch to snatch prey.

During mating season, male Resplendent Quetzals grow elongated upper tail coverts, forming a train of feathers up to three feet long. These long feathers play an important part in the bird's flight display, as the male rises above the canopy, then plunges down to the female, his long, magnificent train of feathers rippling behind him. The male also sings while displaying. Listen to the male's song here:

(Audio of male Resplendent Quetzal song by Peter Boesman, XC271507. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/271507)

A mated pair chooses a nest site in a rotted tree, snag, or stump, sometimes using an old woodpecker hole. Soft, rotted wood is a necessity, as these birds' beaks and claws are too weak to excavate live wood.

The female lays two eggs directly on the unlined floor of the nesting chamber, and both parents take turns incubating. Incredibly, the male manages to fit most of his long train into the nesting cavity when it's his turn to brood, simply by folding the long feathers over his back.

Resplendent-Quetzal-female_Petr-Salinger-Shutterstock

Resplendent Quetzal female. Photo by Petr Salinger, Shutterstock

A Gorgeous Bird That Needs Attention

The Resplendent Quetzal is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Near Threatened. The U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) also includes the Resplendent Quetzal on its Watch List as a species of high conservation concern.

Today, the biggest threat to this spectacular bird is habitat loss due to deforestation, forest fragmentation, and agricultural clearing. It is sometimes hunted for food and captured for the pet trade.

The Resplendent Quetzal may be found at the El Jaguar Reserve in Nicaragua, which also serves as critical winter habitat for migrants such as the Wood Thrush and the Golden-winged Warbler. El Jaguar is close to the larger Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, where ABC is working with the Wildlife Conservation Society and local conservationists to help farmers adopt silviculture techniques, which help keep trees in place throughout agricultural areas, and promote bird-friendly crops such as cacao.


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