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quetzal in monteverde
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Resplendent Quetzals

Resplendent Quetzals

Hilights

  • Scientific Name: Pharomachrus mocinno
  • Status in the Wild: Threatened
  • Habitat: Cloud Forests
  • Diet: Herbivore

The resplendent quetzal has often been called the most spectacular bird in the New World. Known for its vibrant plumage, the quetzal is the largest member of the trogon avian order. There are two subspecies, P. m. mocinno and P. m. costaricenis, respectively known as the resplendent quetzal and the Costa Rican resplendent quetzal, a species important to Mesoamerican myth. Because of its ancient significance, the resplendent quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird, and today lends its name to their currency.

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An adult quetzal weighs about seven ounces and measures approximately 14 inches long; in addition, the adult male resplendent quetzal grows a streamer tail, which can measure up to 30 inches long during mating season. Biologically, his long tail will help the male quetzal attract a mate – in practice, it is one of the bird’s defining characteristics, helping bird watchers identify it from a distance.

Resplendent quetzals have beautiful green body feathers, red breasts and long wings. Female quetzals exhibit similar, if more muted, color patterns than their male counterparts. Males, in addition to their long tail feathers and jewel-like colorings, also display a green feather crest atop their heads.

The resplendent quetzal is considered a specialized fruit eater, basing its diet almost entirely on wild avocado fruits. They may also dine on insects and frogs, depending on season and avocado availability. In Costa Rica, the resplendent quetzal is usually found in the cloud forest canopy, perched on the branches of the wild avocado, or aguatillo tree.

Several pre-Columbian civilizations considered the resplendent quetzal as divine, perhaps because of their unique beauty. The iridescent bird was associated with the “snake god,” Quetzalcoatl, and the bird’s green tail feathers were said to represent the green growth of spring. Highly revered, it was a crime to kill the quetzal, and the name itself was a synonym for precious or sacred.

Habitat:

The resplendent quetzal is found from southern Mexico to western Panama, usually residing in altitudinal cloud forests. They generally live alone, but during mating season can be found in pairs and even in small groups. They are most active in the forest canopy.

In Costa Rica, the resplendent quetzal is protected within five national parks – Braulio Carrillo, Poas Volcano, Chirripo, La Amistad and the new Quetzal National Park. They may also be spotted in the private cloud forest reserves of Monteverde and in the cool highlands of San Gerardo de Dota, which sits 7200 feet above sea level along the Cerro de la Muerte. Avid bird watchers should note that December through June is peak quetzal season in Costa Rica, though they can be spotted less frequently year-round.

Reproduction:

Resplendent quetzals nest in carved-out rotted trees. Females lay two pale, blue eggs, and both parents take turns incubating their developing young. After 18 days of incubation, the eggs hatch, and both the male and female quetzal share parenting duties, feeding their babies fruit, insects, frogs and tadpoles. Toward the end of the rearing period, the female quetzal tends to leave her young, and the male must stay behind until the baby quetzals are ready to live on their own.

Status in the Wild:

Resplendent quetzals are threatened throughout their range, mostly because of deforestation. Costa Rica is famous for resplendent quetzal spotting not because of its unique environs, but because of its protected forests. Though many Central American cloud forests have fallen pray to deforestation and other man-made threats, many of Costa Rica’s cloud forests remain protected by law, providing opportunities for quetzals to live and breed in relative peace.