Animal of the Month
April 2016

Name: Resplendent Quetzal (ket-sal)

Scientific Name: Pharomachrus mocinno

Class: Aves
Order: Trogoniformes
Family: Trogonidae
Genus: Pharomachrus
Number of Species: 2 (Pharomachrus mocinno mocinno,
Pharomachrus mocinno costaricensis)
Size: 14-16 inches long
Weight: 7-8 ounces

Characteristics: Round head, small beak
Color(s): Males are bluish-green green with black and white wings, a red belly and a fuzzy-looking crest on the head. Females are also bluish green, but brown on their head and bellies with shorter, spotted
black and white tails.
Behavior: Likes to hold very still in the trees
Preferred Habitat: Mountainous tropical forests
Range: Central America
Diet: Fruit, insects, lizards and others small creatures
Lifespan: Possibly 3-10 years

Status: Near Threatened. Some class this animal as Threatened.

Considered by some to be one of the most beautiful birds in the Americas, the resplendent quetzal is found across the mountainous jungles of Central America. It is the national bird of Guatemala, featured in the nation’s coat of arms and flag. Guatemala’s currency, the Guatemalan quetzal, is also named after this species.

The word “quetzal” comes from the Aztec word “quetzalli”, which means “precious” or “beautiful”. Quetzals are trogons, an order of birds that are known for their beautiful feathers. The resplendent quetzal has a cousin—the eared quetzal—which lives in the southwestern United States and Mexico. In ancient times, the resplendent quetzal was considered sacred by Mesoamerican cultures. The resplendent quetzal was said to represent the god Quetzalcoatl. The Mayans forbade the killing of this animal, and Aztec priests would wear its feathers during religious ceremonies.

Resplendent quetzals are notorious for being difficult to photograph. That’s because they blend in well with the foliage of the jungle, and they have a habit of sitting very still in the branches for extended periods. Resplendents are also known for making screeching noises, and when they flock in groups they can be especially loud in the jungle. Quetzals prefer to eat fruits and insects in the trees, as well as small lizards and other creatures. During the mating season, the male will grow his long tail feathers, which can be as long as three feet! They have powerful beaks, which they use to make holes in rotted trees or stumps. In these holes they build their nests, where the male and female will take turns incubating their clutch of two or three eggs. The two will also work together to raise the chicks after they hatch. Three weeks after hatching, the chicks are capable of flight, but the males will not grow their signature tails for three years.

Pictures of the gorgeous resplendent often feature the bird in the trees, sitting gloriously with its emerald feathers and ruby belly. However, it is important to note that the pictures that are most commonly celebrated are actually of the male resplendent quetzal! Like many birds, resplendents display sexual dimorphism, meaning the males and females have physical differences. The trademark green and red feathers and long tail are attributes of the male resplendent. The female resplendents are also green, but they are brown and have very little red plumage, and their tails are shorter. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture doesn’t always tell a species’ full story.

Resplendent quetzals are considered threatened or near-threatened, mostly due to habitat destruction. They are also victims of hunting as well as trapping for captivity. They do not fare well in captivity; there are very few resplendents on display in zoos, and they will not usually breed in captivity. Much about these birds remains a mystery, including their natural lifespan. Some estimate that they live somewhere between three and then years, but this has yet to be confirmed. This is another example of an animal that is in danger of disappearing before we’ve become well acquainted with it!

While the resplendent quetzal is in trouble, fortunately action is being taken to preserve them and their natural habitat. The birds are protected in Guatamala, Costa Rica and Panama, and some conservation projects have increased the birds’ numbers significantly. Resplendents are threatened, but there is hope.

If you would like to help, check out these awesome organizations:

Bird Life International, Resplendent Quetzal Page—The world’s largest conservation partnership, BirdLife International strives to work with other organizations across the planet to protect birds, including Resplendent Quetzals.

Lafaber, “Earth’s Resplendent Species — the Good News of the Quetzal”—An organization dedicated to helping both parrots and human communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. This article highlights that far too often the success stories of conservation are untold, including the success of the resplendent quetzal.


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