The Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, is a spectacular bird of the trogon family. It is found from southern Mexico to western Panama (unlike the other quetzals, which are found in South America and eastern Panama). There are two subspecies, P. m. mocinno and P. m. costaricensis, the Costa Rican Resplendent Quetzal. This quetzal plays an important role in Mesoamerican myth.
This species is 36 cm (14 in) long, plus up to 64 cm (25 in) of tail streamer for the male, and weighs about 210 g (7 oz). This is the largest representative of the trogon order.
Resplendent Quetzals have a green body (showing iridescence from green-gold to blue-violet) and red breast. Their green upper tail coverts hide their tails and in breeding males are particularly splendid, being longer than the rest of the body. The primary wing coverts are also unusually long and give a fringed appearance. The male has a helmet-like crest. The mature male's beak is yellow and the female's is black.
The skin of the quetzal is very thin and easily torn, so it has evolved thick plumage to protect its skin. Like other members of the trogon family, it has large eyes that adapt easily to the dim light of its forest home.
The "song" is a treble syllable described as kyow or like "a whimpering pup", often in pairs, which may be repeated monotonously. Resplendent Quetzals have other unmusical calls as well.
Resplendent Quetzals are considered specialized fruit-eaters
, although they mix their diet with insects
, and larvae
) and frogs
. Particularly important are wild avocados
and other fruit of the laurel family
, which the birds swallow whole before regurgitating the pits, which helps to disperse these trees.
Their habitat is montane cloud forests of Central America (from Southern Mexico to Panama). Resplendent Quetzals usually live alone when not breeding. When breeding, females lay two pale blue eggs in a nest placed in a hole which they carve in a rotten tree. A tree in the required stage of decomposition is susceptible to weather damage, and the availability of suitable trees may limit the Resplendent Quetzal population.
Both parents take turns at incubating, with their long tail-covert feathers folded forwards over the back and out of the hole, where they tend to look like a bunch of fern growing out of the hole. The incubation period lasts about 18 days, during which the male generally incubates the eggs during the day while the female incubates them at night. When the eggs hatch, both parents take care of the young, feeding them fruit, berries, insects, lizards, and small frogs. However, the female often neglects and even abandons the young near the end of the rearing period, leaving it up to the male to continue caring for the offspring until they are ready to survive on their own.
Resplendent Quetzals are weak fliers. Their common predators include the Ornate Hawk Eagle and owls as adults, emerald toucanet, squirrels, and the Kinkajou as nestlings (Pribor 1999).
Myth and legend
The Resplendent Quetzal was considered divine, associated with the "snake god", Quetzalcoatl
Central American civilizations. Their iridescent
green tail feathers, symbols for spring plant growth, were venerated by the ancient Mayas
, who viewed the quetzal as the "god of the air" and as a symbol of goodness and light. Mesoamerican
rulers and some nobility of other ranks wore headdresses made from quetzal feathers, symbolically connecting them to Quetzalcoatl. Since it was a crime to kill a quetzal, the bird was simply captured, its long tail feathers plucked, and was set free. Quetzalcoatl was the creator god and god of wind, often depicted with grey hair. In several Mesoamerican languages
, the term for quetzal
can also mean precious
, or erected
Until recently, it was thought that the Resplendent Quetzal could not be bred or held for any long time in captivity, and indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged. For this reason it is a traditional symbol of liberty. However, a zoo in Mexico has kept this species since 1992, and in 2004 breeding in captivity was announced (Orellana, 2004).
The Resplendent Quetzal is Guatemala's national bird, and an image of it is on the flag and the coat of arms of Guatemala. It is also the name of the local currency (abbreviation GTQ).
The bird is of great relevance to Guatemalan culture, being a character in the widely popular legend of the local hero Tecún Umán, a prince and warrior of the Quiché Maya during the latter stages of the Spanish conquest of the region. This quetzal was his nahual (spirit guide).
The Quiché repelled several attacks from the Spanish army, even though outmatched in weaponry (guns, armor and cavalry against spears and arrows).
Legend has it that on the day the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado fought against Tecún Umán, there was a quetzal flying overhead. On the first strike Tecún Umán, on foot, managed to disable Pedro de Alvarado's horse. Alvarado was then given another horse and on the second strike ran through Tecún Umán's chest with a spear.
The quetzal flew down and landed on Tecún Umán, dipping its chest in the warrior prince's blood. It is there that the bird acquired its distinctive red chest feathers.
It is debatable whether these events happened, but the Maya fought fiercely for their land and freedom during the conquest.
One Guatemalan legend claims that the quetzal used to sing beautifully before the Spanish conquest, but has been silent ever since — but will sing once again when the land is truly free.
Stuffed specimens are displayed in the homes of the Guatemalan wealthy and museums, contributing to the birds' rarity.
The epithet mocinno
's Latinization of the name of the biologist J. M. Mociño
, a mentor of his. (It is sometimes spelled mocino
, but "ñ" was formerly spelled "nn" in Spanish, so the spelling with "nn" is justified and in any case now official. ,
The word "quetzal" came from Nahuatl, where quetzalli (from the root quetz = "stand") meant "tall upstanding plume" and then "quetzal tail feather"; from that Nahuatl quetzaltotōtl means "quetzal-feather bird" and thus "quetzal".
- Atkins, Edward G., Rita Kimber, and Robert Kimber (eds.) (1991). Vanishing Eden: The Plight of the Tropical Rain Forest. Barrons Educational Series, Inc. ISBN 0-8120-6246-9.
- Howell, Steve N. G.; Webb, Sophie (1995). A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854012-4.
- Orellana, Claudia (2004). "Quetzals Bred in Captivity in Chiapas". Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2 (7): 345. (A Resplendent Quetzal chick hatched at the Miguel Álvarez del Toro Zoo, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico, and reached the age of six weeks at the time of the report. A short excerpt is visible on a Google search page)
- Pena, E. 2001. "Pharomachrus mocinno" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 6, 2006 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Pharomachrus_mocinno.html.
- Pribor, Paul The Biogeography of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). San Francisco State University. .
- Williamson, Sheri L.; P. R. Colston (2003). Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. ISBN 1-55297-777-3.
- Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is near threatened.
- http://www.dimijianimages.com/CostaRica-page3/quetzal-close.jpg Male quetzal looking out of its hole
- Stamp images (for seven countries)
- Resplendent Quetzal photo gallery VIREO
- Resplendent Quetzal videos on the Internet Bird Collection