Entering the Mesoamerican jungle, and if you are lucky and it is the right time of year, you can even see the iridescent green plumage of a bird that, undulating, crosses the air from one tree to another, in a majestic flight. For the ancient Mexica, this vision represented Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent , one of the most important gods in their pantheon. The giver of life, the bearer of light and knowledge.
Although our conception of the real world deviates from these ancient beliefs, the beautiful animal behind that vision is still impressive. It is the quetzal ( Pharomachrus mocinno ) , a unique bird in the world.
What is a quetzal like?
The quetzal is a medium-sized bird, about 35 or 40 centimeters, not counting the tail, with marked sexual dimorphism. The male has an iridescent green coloration, with a red chest patch , black wings, and a feathered crest on the head. The female has duller colors, a grayish chest, and a bronze-green head.
The greatest distinction between the two sexes is found in their most spectacular feature. The male has a long tail , made up of a few feathers of about 75 centimeters in length – exceptionally they can reach a meter.
It is these feathers that, during the flight of the male quetzal, generate the characteristic sinuous effect, reminiscent of the movement of a snake passing through the air.
The quetzal is a mainly frugivorous animal; it feeds on the fruits of a wide variety of plant species of the lauraceae family, also acting as dispersers of its seeds; occasionally they also feed on insects, small amphibians and reptiles, and snails, especially during the breeding season.
Where does the quetzal live?
The quetzal inhabits the tropical forests of the laurel forest , at altitudes ranging from 900 to 3,200 meters. From north to south, it occupies territories of Mexico, Guatemala —where it has the largest population—, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Its population is estimated at less than 50,000 individuals, and it is declining, mainly due to the widespread deforestation of the laurel forests, and the subsequent fragmentation of its habitat. In some regions, climate change has allowed the green-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus ) to expand its native distribution area, putting the populations of this frugivore in contact with those of quetzals, with a direct impact through competition.
Its state of conservation is not, therefore, worrying, but it is not exempt from problems either; hence the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the quetzal in the category of ‘ near threatened species’.
The quetzal, national symbol of Guatemala
Although today we know that it is not true, traditionally it was thought that the quetzal could not live in captivity, which is why the ancient Mesoamerican peoples considered it a symbol of freedom. Its feathers, of great value , could only be used by the nobles and the priests, who braided them with ornaments and diadems. They were even used as currency. Such was their devotion that the Mayans and Aztecs considered killing a quetzal a capital crime .
During the colonial period, Native American folklore reinforced the quetzal’s symbolism of freedom, as a result of the battle that took place in 1524, in the valleys of Pachah, in present-day Quetzaltenango. There, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated the last ruler of the K’iche’, the warrior Tecún Umán , in battle. Legend has it that, when the Guatemalan hero fell mortally wounded, a male quetzal landed on his bloodied chest, and from then on he was marked red forever.
This strong symbolism was accepted and assimilated by the Guatemalan people, to such an extent that the quetzal appears on the Guatemalan flag and coat of arms and is considered the national bird .
Furthermore, given the commercial value of its feathers in the pre-Columbian past, in 1925, the official currency , which until then had been the Guatemalan peso, was replaced by the quetzal. And a representation of the animal appears on all bills.
Carleton, S. A. 2016. Adult nest attendance and diet of nestling Resplendent Quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno) in the Talamanca Mountains of southern Cosa Rica. Ornitologia Neotropical, 27, 181-188.
Grolier Incorporated (Ed.). 1993. The Encyclopedia Americana (International ed., deluxe home ed). Grolier Inc.
IUCN. 2022. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2021-3.
Oyama, K. et al. 2009. Genetic diversity and conservation of the quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno in Mesoamerica. Mexican Journal of Biodiversity, 80(001). DOI: 10.22201/ib.20078706e.2009.001.600
Pena, E. 2010. Pharomachrus mocinno (resplendent quetzal). Animal Diversity Web.