Cloud forest and montane forests of Central America. Range from Southern Mexico to Panama.
Biogeographic Regions: neotropical (Native )
Mexico to Panama
Size: 14 in. (35cm) from bill to base of tail. Males' magnificent tail can be up to as much as 3ft. (90cm) long. Excluding tail, the length of the quetzal is comparable in size to a Magpie, Grosbeak, or Pigeon.
(Grolier 1996, Grzimek 1972)
Coloration: The most extravagant feature of the male quetzal is its iridescent tail plumes, which can add up to 3 ft. to the birds length. The head, neck, chest, back and wings of the males are a metallic green, while the breast and belly are bright crimson. The male has a distinct tuft of bristly upstanding golden green feathers on top of his head, forming a crestlike structure.
The female quetzal is very similar in color, yet 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 far less vibrant than the males. Often the brilliant green that the males display is replaced with browns and buff tones in the female.
(Grolier 1996, Middleton and Perrins 1985, Skutch and Stiles 1989, Skutch 1983)
Feet: The feet of the quetzal are very unusual, yet quintessential to the Trogon family. They have olive-gray colored feet with four toes on each foot (two in front and two in back). The first and second toes have been shifted to the rear, while the third and fourth are directed forward. This makes their feet very weak and the first and second toes immovable.
(Birkhead and Brooke 1991, Grzimek 1972, Skutch and Stiles 1989)
Skin: The skin of Pharomachrus mocino is very flimsy, thin and quite easily torn. Because of the fragile skin, feathers fall out excessively while being prepared in museums. Rapid fading of feather colors also make the quetzal a poor species for display.
(Birkhead and Brooke 1991)
Beak: The beak of the quetzal is significant to the name of its order and family; Trogon meaning gnawing in Greek. The quetzal's beak is fairly short although very powerful. The male bird has a yellow beak while the female's is black. Males and females use their small beaks primarily for nesting and gnawing.
(Grzimek 1972, Skutch and Stiles 1989)
Talamancan Montane Forests Habitat
This taxon occurs in the Talamancan montane forests, an ecoregion situated along the mountainous spine of the Cordillera Talamanca within Costa Rica and Panama. These forests represent one of Central America’s most intact habitats. The steep slopes, remoteness and relatively cool temperatures have limited the impact of agriculture and human development in most of this area.
This region exhibits considerable floral and faunal species diversity, many of which taxa are endemic. Over 30 percent of the ecoregion's flora, including over 10,000 vascular and 4000 non-vascular plant species, are endemic to this area, as are a number of fauna species. Nearly 75 percent of original forest cover remains intact, with forty percent protected by national and international parks.
The rainfall and temperature in this area of Central America is a direct result of the elevation and orientation north or south side of the mountain range. The average temperature and rainfall for this part of Costa Rica varies from 25°C and 2000 millimetres (mm) at the Caribbean Sea level to –8° C and >6000 mm at the highest peaks including Cerro Chirripo, the highest point in southern Central America at 3820 m. The high humidity and precipitation (which averages between 2500 and 6500 mm annually), steep slopes, and cool temperatures have limited agricultural and urban development, making these highland moist forests one of Central America's most intact ecosystems.
The forest habitats of this ecoregion include Atlantic slope "aseasonal" rainforest, Pacific slope seasonally dry but mostly evergreen forest, and "perpetually dripping cloud forest" on the mountain tops, above approximately 1500 m. The high annual rainfall, wind-blown mist, and frequent presence of clouds, probably the most outstanding characteristic of these montane forests, produce a lush, dense forest with a broken canopy and high species diversity. Abundant epiphytes cover tree branches, and tree ferns are common. Dominant tree groups include the Lauraceae family, especially in the northern section of the ecoregion, and endemic oaks (Quercus spp.), especially in the south. The unique oak forest stands in this ecoregion are characterized by majestic, tall trees (up to 50 m tall), heavily dominated by two species: Quercus costaricensis and Q. copeyensis, while Magnolia, Drymis, and Weinmannia are also important tree elements. The understory is characterized by the presence of several species of dwarf bamboo (Chusquea). Higher peaks and ridges exposed to moisture-laden trade winds support an elfin, or dwarf forest characterized by thick mats of bryophytes covering short, dense gnarled trees.
Seismically induced phenomena, volcanism, and landslides (triggered by torrential rains or earthquakes) are the major natural disturbances influencing the montane forest units within the Talamancan Range. The resulting steep slopes and nutrient-deficient soils insure that this ecoregion harbors some of the most intact in Central America. The La Amistad International Park, one of the largest reserves in Central America, consists of over 400,000 hectares of relatively intact montane forest. These larger blocks of intact forest are essential for preserving remnant populations of harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) and they protect breeding grounds of threatened and endangered birds endemic to the highland forests of this ecoregion, such as: resplendent quetzal (Pharomacrus mocinno), three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata), bare-necked umbrellabird (Cephalopterus glabricollis), and black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor). The first three of these birds migrate seasonally to lower elevations, demonstrating the importance of not only maintaining intact highland habitats but also connecting them to neighboring intact middle and lower elevations. In fact, over 65 (or over ten percent) of the bird species found here migrate altitudinally.
The Atlantic middle elevations also contain some of the most rare species of butterflies Central America, as well as some of the world's highest butterfly species richness. Populations of crested eagle and painted parakeet were recently discovered in Cerro Hoya on the Azuero Peninsula.
- C.Michael Hogan and World Wildlife Fund. 2010. "Talamancan Montane Forests". Encyclopedia of Earth, National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington DC ed.Mark McGinley. updated 2012
- S.D. Davis, V.H. Heywood, O. Herrera MacBryde, J. Villa-Lobos and A.C. Hamilton, editors. 1997. Centres of Plant Diversity. A Guide and Strategy for their Conservation. Volume 3. The Americas. IUCN Publications Unit, Cambridge, U.K. 562 pp.
Habitat and Ecology
The Quetzal is a relatively inactive bird who lives among lush vegetation, in very moist rainforest zones. They often choose high mountain ranges (4,000-10,00 ft.) that are cool. They live in the trees that form the canopy of the rainforest. Pharomachrus mocino prefers to inhabit decaying trees, stumps, and sometimes old woodpecker hollows. The biosterously loud colors of the quetzal are somewhat camouflaged by their natural habitat in the rainforest.
(Grolier 1996, Grzimek 1972, Skutch 1983)
Terrestrial Biomes: rainforest
The quetzal is preferentially a frugivore, yet it often must commit to omnivorous practices. The favored fruits and berries of the quetzal are produced by the laurel family, whose fruits resemble miniature avocados. The aguacatillo is an example of a laurel fruit in the quetzal's diet. Quetzals maintain a mutualistic relationship with the laurel family, as the plants depend on the bird to disperse seeds in their droppings. Many birds may meet at one tree at the same time. The Ira Rose Tree is a common source of food for quetzals. When fruits are not available the quetzal resorts to eating a variety of foods such as insects, small frogs, and lizards. The quetzal is a great hunter: it swoops down and grasps its food (prey, or fruit) and engulfs it while in the air.
(http, Skutch 1983, Skutch and Stiles 1989)
Life History and Behavior
Breeding: The breeding season of the quetzal is from March to June. During this time males perform courtship dances, calls and loud singing in order to attract females. The male's call during this season sounds like "very-good very-good." Quetzals are hole-brooders that use their beaks to excavate holes in decaying bark, but they do not fill the brood with nesting materials such as thatch or leaves, they simply deposit their clutches on the bare floor of the chamber. Both male and female quetzals assist in the nest building. These simple nests are usually located 15-45 ft. from ground level, and are about 4-4 1/2 in. (10-11.4cm) in diameter.
Once a pair is established and the two have built a nest together, they mate inside the chamber. The female lays her eggs, usually two, on the floor of the chamber. The eggs are light-blue, globular in shape, and 35x30mm. Parental care is exhibited by both quetzals, during the incubation period of 17-18 days. The pair shares incubation duties, separating the times of day each cares for the clutch. The female broods during the night and midday, while the male broods in early morning and late afternoon. It was throught by native people that the quetzal built two entrances to the chamber so the male would not damage his fabulous plumes during incubation, but this idea has been discarded because male quetzals are often seen with tattered tails during mating season.
(Grolier 1996, Gzimek 1972, Skutch 1983, Skutch and Stiles 1989)
Hatchlings: After about 17-18 days, the quetzals eggs hatch exposing naked hatchlings with closed eyes and a white egg tooth near the tip of the upper mandible. The eyes remained closed for the entire first week after hatching. The hatchlings develop rapidly, and by two weeks they are profusely covered with feathers excluding their heads. The feathers of the young quetzal are very soft and pale in tone. They closely resemble the female in her muted tones of grays and dull greens. The young birds also lack the traces of crimson on the breast that both adult birds possess. During the first week the hatchlings are fed almost exclusively insects by both parents. Any debris or waste from hatchlings is removed from the chamber and the nest is kept very clean. When the young reach about two weeks of age, fruits and small vertebrates (frogs, lizards, and snails) are introduced to them. The nestlings stay in brooding chamber, and under the care of their parents for approximately three weeks, with the parents feeding them alternately as demonstrated in incubation. The juvenile birds approach the entrance of the chamber at about three weeks, and soon they are taught to fly usually by the male bird. The male feeds and tends to the bird which attempts to fly first, and the second is usually ignored until it too flies from the nest. Soon after, the birds can fly with confidence and they leave the nest permanently. The young birds, however, continue to spend time with their parents. The juvenile quetzals do not develop their vibrant colors for some time and male quetzals do not fully develop their plumes for three years.
(Grzimek 1972, Skutch 1983)
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Date Listed: 06/14/1976
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Pharomachrus mocinno , see its USFWS Species Profile
The quetzal is legally protected in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama, although enforcement in remote areas where birds are found is nearly impossible. In Costa Rica, national parks have been set up to protect the endangered quetzal. Braulio Corrillo, Pos, Chirripo, La Amistad, Monteverde and the Los Angeles cloud reserves all cooperate in the preservation of the Resplendent Quetzal.
The population of quetzals has greatly decreased due to factors such as cloud forest destruction, hunting, and capture of these birds for trade. The quetzal however, is still somewhat common in very remote areas of Central America.
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: near threatened
CITES Appendix I. The species is an important symbol for conservation in Central America and reserves have been established to facilitate its protection, but these tend to be small and include limited representations of critical habitat (Wheelwright 1983). It occurs in several national parks throughout its range. Conservation Actions Proposed
Conduct surveys to obtain an up-to-date population estimate. Monitor population trends through regular surveys. Monitor habitat loss and degradation throughout its range. Create habitat corridors between higher and lower forests to facilitate altitudinal movements (del Hoyo et al. 2001). Protect forests at both higher and lower elevations that are used by the same populations.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
The quetzal is very important to tourism in Central American countries. In places such as Guatemala and Costa Rica the quetzal is often held in captivity to attract tourists. These practices are very profitable for humans, however they are very detrimental to the population of the threatened quetzal.
The resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is a bird in the trogon family. It is found from southern Mexico to western Panama (unlike the other quetzals of the genus Pharomachrus, which are found in South America and eastern Panama). It is well known for its colorful plumage. There are two subspecies, P. m. mocinno and P. m. costaricensis.
This quetzal plays an important role in Mesoamerican mythologies. The resplendent quetzal is Guatemala's national bird, and an image of it is on the flag and coat of arms of Guatemala. It is also the name of the local currency (abbreviation GTQ).
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.
Two subspecies are recognised, P. m. mocinno and P. m. costaricensis. The epithet mocinno is Llave's Latinization of the name of the biologist J. M. Mociño, a mentor of his. (It is sometimes spelled mocino, but "ñ" was formerly spelled "nn" in Spanish, so the spelling with "nn" is justified and in any case now official.)
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 36–40 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 subspecies costaricensis is slightly smaller than the nominate race and has shorter narrower tail plumes.
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.
Distribution and habitat
Resplendent quetzals are weak fliers. Their known predators include the ornate hawk-eagle 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 in Guatemala as 6–10 ha (15–25 acres). They are also seasonal breeders, with the breeding season being March to April in Mexico, May to June in El Salvador and March to May in Guatemala. 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.
Status and conservation
The resplendent quetzal is classified as near threatened on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss. However, it does occur in several protected areas throughout its range and is a sought after species for bird watchers and eco-tourists.
Relationship with humans
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. 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. Quetzalcoatl was the creator god and god of wind, often depicted with grey hair. 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.
The bird is of great relevance to Guatemalan culture, being a character in the widely popular legend of the local hero Tecún Umán, a prince and warrior of the Quiché (K'iche') Maya during the latter stages of the Spanish conquest of the region. This quetzal was his nahual (spirit guide). The Quiché repelled several attacks from the Spanish army, even though outmatched in weaponry (guns, armor and cavalry against spears and arrows).
Legend has it that on the day the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado fought against Tecún Umán, there was a quetzal flying overhead. On the first strike Tecún Umán, on foot, managed to disable Pedro de Alvarado's horse. Alvarado was then given another horse and on the second strike ran through Tecún Umán's chest with a spear. The quetzal flew down and landed on Tecún Umán, dipping its chest in the warrior prince's blood. It is there that the bird acquired its distinctive red chest feathers.
It is debatable whether these events happened, but the Maya fought fiercely for their land and freedom during the conquest. 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.
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