Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno)
|Also known as:||magnificent quetzal|
|Size||Size (from bill to base of tail): 36 – 40 cm (2)|
Tail-streamers: up to 65 cm (2)
|Weight||180 – 210 g (2)|
Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1), classified as Endangered on the U.S. Endangered Species Act 1976 (3), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4).
The most spectacular feature of the resplendent quetzal, often held to be the most beautiful and ornate bird species in the Western Hemisphere, is the greatly elongated, glistening emerald-green tail feathers of breeding males (5) (6) (7). These are longer than the entire body of the bird, and are in fact upper tail coverts that extend beyond the bird’s snow-white tail, forming an elegant train of ‘streamers’ that are flaunted during the mating season in a spectacular swooping flight display (8) (9). The rare beauty of this bird comes not only from this extravagant train, but also from the glitter of its iridescent plumage and striking contrast of its colouration. The head, neck, chest, back and wings are a metallic green, while the lower breast, belly and under tail coverts are bright crimson. In addition, a distinct tuft of bristly golden green feathers form a short crest on top of the male’s head (5). Females are similar but of less conspicuous colours than males, having a bronze-green head and grey mid-breast to mid-belly, and without the impressive tail streamers (2) (5). The beak is short but powerful, yellow in the male and black in the female. Its impressive plumage and longstanding cultural significance to the people of Central America has earned the species the accolade of ‘rare jewel bird of the world’ from some cultures (5).
Found throughout Central America from southern Mexico to Panama, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (5). Two subspecies are recognized, with distinct distributions. P. m. mocinno occurs in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, eastern El Salvador and north-central Nicaragua, while P. m. costaricensis occurs in Costa Rica and the west highlands of Panama (2).
Found in the canopy and sub-canopy of undisturbed humid montane cloud forest, thickly vegetated ravines and cliffs, and pastures at forest edges (2) (10). High mountain ranges (900 – 3,200 m) that are cool are often favoured (2) (5). The nest is a deep, unlined excavated cavity with a single entrance in a decaying tree trunk or stump, or occasionally enlarged from an old existing woodpecker’s hollow (5). In Costa Rica, altitudinal migrations have been recorded, in which the bird moves to lower elevations in the non-breeding season (10).
The breeding season of the resplendent quetzal varies slightly across its range, but tends to fall somewhere between February and July (2) (7). During this time, males attract females by performing courtship dances, aerial displays, calls and loud singing (5) (8). Both the male and female assist in nest building, after which mating occurs within the chamber. One to two eggs are laid, which are then incubated by both parents for 17 to 18 days (5). Once hatched, the male and female take turns to feed the chicks until they fledge after 23 to 31 days (2) (5). It has been reported that less than 20 % of young survive to leave the nest, being preyed upon by toucanets, brown jays, squirrels and weasels (6), and that of those that fledge, another 80 % die before adulthood (2).
During the first 10 days of life, hatchlings are fed almost exclusively on insects, with fruit and small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and snails being introduced to the diet as they grow (2) (5). Fruit forms the bulk of the adult diet, preferentially wild avocados produced by the laurel family (Lauraceae), but insects, small frogs and lizards will be taken when fruit is scarce (2) (5).
The resplendent quetzal has declined significantly due to destruction of its cloud-forest habitat for subsistence agriculture, and hunting for food and trade (5) (7). It has long been thought that the quetzal does not fair well in captivity, and its inability to be caged has led it to become a symbol of liberty. As such, Guatemala has adopted the species as its national bird, with the species appearing on the coat of arms of the country, on the flag and postage stamps, and quetzal is even the name of the currency (5). Despite its revered status, however, the bird has suffered particularly badly in war-torn Guatemala due to widespread forest clearance for coffee plantations between 1880 – 1930, and hunting for its plumes (2) (7).
The resplendent quetzal is legally protected in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama, but enforcement in remote areas is extremely difficult and poaching evidently continues (5). The species occurs in numerous protected areas across its range. In particular, Costa Rica has made great efforts to preserve the endangered bird through setting up an extensive system of national parks and wildlife reserves, resulting in a highly successful and lucrative eco-tourism business (7). However, the main problem for the Monteverde population in Costa Rica is that its seasonal migratory behaviour between higher and lower altitudes has complicated the conservation of the species (8). Only the habitat in which the bird breeds is protected within the confines of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, while the feeding ground to which it descends in the non-breeding season is on private land, and forests here are becoming increasingly fragmented (8) (10). Thus, there is presently an initiative underway, spearheaded by the Monteverde Conservation League, to persuade landholders to conserve parts of their land for this and other native fauna. Having been regarded with awe for centuries by a variety of cultures, the resplendent quetzal is now becoming increasingly vulnerable to extinction, and it is the collective responsibility of all its range nations to ensure that effective conservation measures are made now, so that this exquisite species and cultural icon may endure for many more centuries to come (8).
For more information on the resplendent quetzal see:
Animal Diversity Web:
del Hoyo, J. Elliot, A. & Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 6 - Mousebirds to hornbills. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Coverts: usually small feathers concealing the bases of larger primary feathers, particularly of the wings or tail.
IUCN Red List (January, 2006)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 6 - Mousebirds to hornbills. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
U.S. Endangered Species Act (January, 2006)
CITES (January, 2006)
Animal Diversity Web (April, 2006)
Cloud Forest Alive (April, 2006)
American University, Trade and Environment Projects: the Mandala Projects (April, 2006)
World Headquarters (April, 2006)
Birder’s World Magazine (April, 2006)
BirdLife International (April, 2006)