Resplendent Quetzals…

The jewel in the cloud-forests of central America..

By Sam

I never tired of waking up to the peculiar sound of comfortably one of the most striking and beautiful creatures I have ever seen. Many times in the pre-dawn gloom in the forests of Cusuco National ParkI was brought back to memories as a child, staring at pictures in my ‘Rand Mcnally Atlas of World Wildlife’. It was certainly the completion of a boyhood dream finally connecting with this fabled creature.

Resplendent Quetzal Cusuco National park, Honduras
These birds represent the nominate ssp mocinno which are slightly larger than costaricensis of Costa Rica and western Panama

Resplendent Quetzals are firmly and deservedly at the top of the worlds must-see birds list and special for so many reasons. Culturally revered throughout the Mesoamericas, the ‘god of the air’ was reputedly never killed, only trapped so that the ‘tail’ streamers could be plucked to be worn by nobility and royalty within Mesoamerican society, a use that was protected by law and penalty of death if this etherial bird was harmed.

In several Mesoamerican languages the word quetzal is synonymous in meaning for sacred or precious. It also shares an association of divinity with the Mesoamerican god Quetzacoatl which in ancient Nahuatl means plumed serpent. It is of course, not the the tail at all that grows to such extraordinary lengths, but the uppertail-coverts, the greater coverts also growing to extended lengths creating a ‘shawl’ effect across the upper wing.

Skutch (1944) describes in descriptive prose (of the male);

‘…a word picture that I wrote in my journal on April 28, 1938, when I had the living birds daily before me: “The male is a supremely lovely bird; the most beautiful, all things considered, that I have ever seen. He owes his beauty to the intensity and arresting contrast of his coloration, the resplendent sheen and glitter of his plumage, the elegance of his ornamentation, the symmetry of his form, and the noble dignity of his carriage.’

Quetzalcoatl– the ‘plumed serpent’ on part of the Codex Telleriano held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris

Quetzals are still deeply engrained in the ethnography of Central America and no more so than in Guatemala where it is the national emblem and even has the currency named after it, an example of the national value it holds, at least culturally. In bitter irony, the Quetzal in Guatemala has not fared well in recent times due to widespread degradation of its habitat primarily for coffee plantations.

Skutch (1944) again writes;

‘Later, when I came to travel in Guatemala, I found its image very much in evidence, in the medallion displayed on the walls of most of the public edifices and in the center of the blue and white banner. I even carried quetzales in my pocket and disbursed them at sundry hotels and shops; for Guatemala has named her monetary unit for her national bird, as many of the neighboring republics have named theirs for famous men. The second city of the land bears the name of this bird-Quezaltenango, the place of Quetzals- but today one searches in vain for these trogons on the wind-swept plains and through the low oak woods in the vicinity of this metropolis of the West.’
‘In selecting the Quetzal as their national emblem, the Guatemalans made a more than usually felicitous choice, a creature at once native of the land itself, ornate as a design, and refreshingly different from the belligerent birds, beasts, and mythological fire-breathers that adorn the coats of arms of so many other nations. And the Quetzal, no less than the soaring eagle and the rampant lion, has its appropriate legend, to illustrate its nobility of spirit and reflect that of the people it represents.’

They are renowned for being highly stressed in captivity, suffering high mortality. Folklore dictates that the Quetzal will die of a broken heart if deprived of its freedom, a trait that gave its status as a symbol of liberty.

Resplendent Quetzal with short tail-streamers, likely a product of the heavy damage often sustained during breeding/incubating or routine post-breeding moult (Bowes and Allen, 1969; Skutch, 1944) Cusuco National park, Honduras

Quetzals are classified as ‘Near-threatened’ under the IUCN redlist (BirdLife International, 2012). Predictably, its primary threat lies in habitat destruction from illegal logging and clearing for agriculture. Cusuco National park is no exception to this rule and the land use change and habitat degradation has been evident over the last few years despite its protected status.In core areas, however, Quetzals remain not uncommon, although heard more than seen, and live in good numbers in secondary growth.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel, however, with the hard work of a dedicated team of individuals that have been involved in long term research in the park recently instigating and forcing greater action from the government to protect against illegal logging, hunting and clearing. A continued dialogue with local communities is, as ever, crucial to long-term success.

As anyone who has scoured the worlds tropical forests for Trogons will know, they are easily overlooked, perching for long periods of time before sallying to feed or moving silently through the mid and upper-storey layers of the forest. Quetzals particularly can sometimes be seen perched for long periods, ‘surveying’ the scene, turning their head slowly seemingly in curiosity or forethought. Bowes and Allen (1969) also describe the birds as sometimes orientating themselves so that the red on its underbelly would not be seen by intruders.

A Resplendent Quetzal slowly surveys its surroundings. Cusuco National park, Honduras

Perhaps this silent dignitary, a symbol of liberty and freedom surveying its habitat thoughtfully, carefully planning its next move, provides us with an example of how we as humans should conduct our habits in relation to our environment.

The Quetzal still looks on- a bastion of Central American natural and cultural heritage, in a changing and threatened land.


References and further reading;

BirdLife International (2012) Pharomachrus mocinno. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. <>. Downloaded on 27 August 2012.
Bowes, A.L. and Allen, D.G.  (1969)  Biology and conservation of the quetzal.  Biological Conservation 1(4): 297-306.
Collar, N.J., Long, A..J., Gil, P.B. and Rojo, J. (2007) Birds and People; Bonds in a timeless journey., CEMEX-Agrupacion Sierra Madre-BirdLife International, Mexico City, Mexico
Powell, G. V. N and Bjork, R. D. (1994) Implications of altitudinal migration for conservation strategies to protect tropical biodiversity: a case study of the Resplendent Quetzal Pharomacrus mocinno at Monteverde, Costa Rica. Bird Conservation International. 4:161-174
Skutch, A. F. (1944) Life history of the quetzal.  Condor. 46: 213-235

About Sam Jones

I am an early-career ornithologist and conservation scientist and have been an avid birder and naturalist since childhood. I have been involved in a variety of work worldwide, particularly in expedition environments and field research throughout the new and old world tropics. Most recently this has taken place in Central America, Indonesian Borneo, Ethiopia and the islands of the South Pacific..
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1 Response to Resplendent Quetzals…

  1. Tony Disley says:

    Fantastic bird, made all the more amazing by the wonderful folklore which surrounds it, lets hope its enough to help in saving its habitat

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