Animal Spotlight: Resplendent Quetzals

Taxonomy:

quetzal.PNG
Photograph by Christian Sanchez

 

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Trogoniformes
  • Family: Trogonidae
  • Genus: Pharomachrus
  • Species: mocinno
  • Other Names: Guatemalan quetzals, Magnificent quetzal
  • Average Body Size: 15 to 16 in (38 to 40.5 cm)
  • Average Male’s Tail Length: 24 in (61 cm)
  • Average Body Weight: 7 to 8 oz (200 to 225 g)

A colorful bird known for its feathers, the Resplendent quetzals were widely known and highly sought after throughout Central America. It is arguably the most beautiful and ornate bird species in the Western Hemisphere because of the greatly elongated, glistening emerald-green tail feathers of breeding males.

It prefers the canopy and subcanopy of undisturbed, humid, epiphyte-laden evergreen mountain forest, cloud forest, thickly vegetated ravines and cliffs, park-like clearings, pastures, and open areas with scattered trees adjacent to the forest.

This species is found throughout the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America, from southern Mexico to Panama. This includes countries like Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

They are most commonly found in the Cordillera de Talamanca and protected cloud-forests in Costa Rica. Other strongholds include Cerro El Arenal and Cerro Kilambe reserves, Nicaragua and Sierra de Agalta National Park, Honduras.

In 1977, it was estimated that there were 12,868 to 13,821 individuals in Talamanca Forest and 4,652 to 4,997 in La Amistad National Park, both of which are in Costa Rica.

There are actually two recognized subspecies within the species of the Resplendent quetzal. The first is P. m. mocinno, which occurs in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, eastern El Salvador, and north-central Nicaragua. The second is P. n. Costaricensis, which occurs only in Costa Rica and the west highlands of Panama.

Physical Appearance:

quetzal-2
Photo by Juan Carlos Vindas

The Resplendent quetzal is known for the glitter of its iridescent plumage and striking contrast with its coloration. The head, neck, chest, back, and wings are typically a metallic green, while the lower breast, belly, and under tail are a bright crimson. The beak is short, but powerful. Yellow in males and black in females.

During mating season, male quetzals grow their famous twin tail feathers, forming a train up to three feet (one meter) long, much longer than their body. The emerald-green tail feathers, which extend beyond the bird’s snow-white tail, are flaunted in a spectacular swooping flight display. Its impressive plumage and longstanding cultural significance to the people of Central America has earned the species the accolade of ‘rare jewel bird of the world’ from some cultures.

Additionally, a distinct tuft of bristly golden green feathers form a short crest on the top of the male’s head.

Females do not have long tail feathers, but they do share the brilliant blue, green, and red coloring of their mates. However, they 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. Replacing the brilliant green that males display are browns and buff towns of the female.

Quetzal feet are unusual, quintessential to the Trogon family. They have olive-gray colored feet with four toes on each foot. The first and second toes have been shifted to the rear, but the third and fourth are directed forward. This makes their feet very week, with the first and second toes immovable.

Diet:

The Resplendent quetzal is an omnivore. While fruit, preferably wild avocados, form the bulk of the the adult diet. However, it will hunt for insects, small frogs, lizards, and snails when fruit is scarce. It typically forages through aerial means, which is reflected by its large flight muscles (21% of the total body mass).

During the first ten days of life, hatchlings are fed almost exclusively on insects. Fruit and small vertebrates are introduced to the diet as they grow.

Because the quetzal feeds on fruit with large seeds, the bird’s digestive tract has

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A female

unique adaptations. A study found the esophagus to have a thin wall, elasticity, and rings of circular muscles to aid in the regurgitation of large seeds. It also lacks a crop, a pouch where food is stored or prepared for digestion. The flexible mandible and clavicle enable it to swallow wider fruit than predicted based on the gape of the mouth.

Behavior:

Breeding takes place in February through August, depending on the region. During this time, males attract females by performing a variety of courtship dances, aerial displays, calls, and loud singing.

Resplendent quetzal pairs use their powerful beaks to hollow hole nests in rotted trees or stumps. Inside, they take turns incubating their clutch of two. Incubation is typically 17-19 days, followed by a fledging period of 23-31 days. Both the male and the female feed the chicks.

Like other young trogons, Resplendent Quetzal young are born with no down and tightly closed eyes. At two days, they begin to have pin feathers, immature feathers before the veins have expanded and shaft is full of liquid. At eight days, their eyes open. At ten days, the flight feathers grow up. By the 14th day, the young quetzals were well-covered in feathers. After 18 days, green feathers appear.

It has been reported that less than 20% of young survive to leave the nest, eaten by toucanets, brown jays, squirrels, and weasels. Out of those that do survive to fledge, another 80% die before adulthood.

The Resplendent quetzal has been described as wary and cautious. Bowes and Allen (1969) found the birds sitting motionless for long periods of time, orienting itself so that the bright red underside would not be visible to an intruder. Occasionally, it turns its head from side to side, looking in each direction for one to three minutes.

Skutch (1944) observed male quetzals to take flight by dropping backward off of a branch. Labastille et. al (1972) reported this behavior in both males and females.

Conservation and Threats:

quetzelDespite its legendary history, the quetzal is in danger of extinction, due to hunting of the bird for food and trade, but mainly due to destruction of its habitat for subsistence agriculture.

Its plumes were used as items of trade, traded as far north as New Mexico and as far south as the Andes. Because of their value, the Mayans treasured the bird. However, once the conquistadors were in power, hunting this species vastly reduced its numbers. Hunting was outlawed in 1895.

This decree did not prove successful, due to the exploitation of the Mayans. As part of a Liberal revolution, the Mayans were pulled off their traditional milpa plots, where they grew maize, and turned into virtual slaves on the large coffee plantations. Raising maize on one’s milpa was a sacred Mayan duty because labor was considered a form of worship and they believed that growing maize was what kept the sun up. So for the Mayans, being separated from the milpa equaled to being separated from the self and Mayan culture.

As a result, many Mayans fled to nearby inaccessible cloud forests. The refugees began burning the cloud forests to clear land to raise their own milpas. With the sudden loss of suitable habitat, quetzals were in danger. Mayans began to hunt them, selling out of greed or desperation, to the European traders who were willing to pay good money.

Deforestation caused the mean temperature of Guatemala to rise. This change in temperature had an adverse effect on the fruits of the Lauraciae family, such as avocados, which the quetzals feed on.

Now, IUCN has listed the Resplendent quetzal, and its cousins, as ‘near threatened’ throughout their range. It is suspected that they are continuing to experience a moderately rapid population decline, due to widespread deforestation and habitat fragmentation. Some direct hunting and poaching is still possibly occurring, particularly in south Mexico, but this appears to have reduced.

It is legally protected in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. But, enforcement in remote areas is extremely difficult. There are numerous protected areas across its range. In particular, Costa Rica set up an extensive system of national parks and wildlife reserves, resulting in a highly successful and lucrative ecotourism.

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Photo By Fulvio Eccardi

However, the main problem for the Monteverde population in Costa Rica is that its seasonal migratory behaviour between higher and lower altitudes has complicated the conservation of the species. Only the habitat in which the bird breeds is protected within the confines of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, while the feeding ground to which it descends in the non-breeding season is on private land, and forests here are becoming increasingly fragmented.

Currently there is an initiative underway, spearheaded by the Monteverde Conservation League, to persuade landholders to conserve parts of their land for this species and other native fauna.

Interesting Facts:

  • The Resplendent quetzal is the symbol of Guatemala and its currency is also known as the “quetzal”.
  • This bird was sacred to the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples, with royalty and priests wearing its feathers during ceremonies often.
  • In Mayan times, it was forbidden to kill the quetzal
  • It is the most threatened of all trogonids, there are five in total
  • Their warning or sentinel calls are described as “weec-weec”; their calls made in flight or when agitated is a sharp crackling “perwick”,
  • ‘Trogon’ means ‘gnawing’ in Greek.
  • Males, when incubating the eggs, will have their tails hang outside the nest due to its length.
  • It has long been thought that the quetzal does not fare well in captivity, and its inability to be caged has led it to become a symbol of liberty.

References + For More Reading

Quetzal – Pharomachrus mocinno

Birdlife International: Resplendent Quetzal

IUCN: Pharomachrus mocinno

Arkive: Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno)

The Resplendent Quetzal

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Pharomachrus mocinno

Costa Rica Guide: Resplendent Quetzals

Anywhere ECosta Rica: RESPLENDENT QUETZAL

Resplendent Quetzal, Sacred Bird of Maya and Aztecs, Faces Extinction Risk

Beauty of Birds: Resplendent Quetzal

Animal Diversity: Pharomachrus mocinno Resplendent Quetzal

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