The resplendent quetzal ( ) (Pharomachrus mocinno) is a bird in the trogon family, found in Costa Rica. There are two subspecies, P. m. mocinno and P. m. costaricensis. The resplendent quetzal plays an important role in various types of Mesoamerican mythology.
The resplendent quetzal was first described by Mexican naturalist Pablo de La Llave in 1832. It is one of five species of the genus Pharomachrus known as quetzals. The term “quetzal” was originally used for just this species, but is now applied to all members of the genera Pharomachrus and Euptilotis.
The word “quetzal” came from Nahuatl (Aztec), 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”.
This species is 36 to 40 cm (14–16 in) long, plus up to 65 cm (26 in) of tail streamer for the male, and weighs about 210 g (7.4 oz). It is the largest representative of the trogon order. The Costa Rican subspecies costaricensis is slightly smaller than the nominate race and has shorter narrower tail plumes.
(A resplendent quetzal found in the Talamanca cloud forests of Costa Rica.)
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 bill, which is partly covered by green filamentous feathers, is yellow in mature males and black in females.
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 weak fliers. Their known predators include the ornate hawk-eagle, golden eagle, and other hawks and owls as adults, emerald toucanets, brown jays, long-tailed weasels, squirrels, and the kinkajou as nestlings or eggs.
Resplendent quetzals are considered specialized fruit-eaters, although they mix their diet with insects (notably wasps, ants, and larvae), frogs and lizards. 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.
Resplendent quetzals usually live alone when not breeding. They are monogamous territorial breeders, with the territory size being measured as 15–25 acres. They are also seasonal breeders, with the breeding season being March to June. 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.
Myth and legend
The resplendent quetzal was considered divine, associated with the “snake god”, Quetzalcoatl by Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. Its iridescent green tail feathers, symbols for spring plant growth, were venerated by the ancient Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the quetzal as the “god of the air” and as a symbol of goodness and light. The Maya also viewed the quetzal symbolizing freedom and wealth, due to their view of quetzals dying in captivity and the value of their feathers, respectively. 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. In several Mesoamerican languages, the term for quetzal can also mean precious, sacred, 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, the Miguel Álvarez del Toro Zoo in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico has kept this species since 1992, and in 2004 breeding in captivity was announced. A chick hatched and reached the age of six weeks at the time of the report. One Mayan legend claims that the quetzal used to sing beautifully before the Spanish conquest, but has been silent ever since; it will sing once again only when the land is truly free.