The Legendary Quetzal Of Mesoamerica

Due to its bright green color with iridescent reflections, the quetzal is an iconic bird that is adored by many. In fact, it was considered by the Aztecs to be an incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl. There are five different species, all native to America.
The legendary quetzal of Mesoamerica

The quetzal is an iconic bird in Central America, particularly for its connection to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Its bright green plumage with iridescent hues has led many to classify it as one of the most beautiful birds in the world. Although it is currently out of danger of extinction, the destruction of its natural habitat is one of the threats it faces.

The legend of Quetzalcoatl

The quetzal takes its name from the legend of Quetzalcoatl. This was a Mesoamerican deity worshiped from 1 BC to around 1500 AD The name Quetzalcoatl means “feathered serpent” in Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs in Central America.

Quetzalcoatl was the main god of the Aztec world. Rulers and nobility wore headdresses made from the bright green feathers of the quetzal, which symbolically connected them to the god. It was considered a crime to kill this bird, so the feathers were obtained by capturing it, plucking its long feathers from its tail and then releasing it.

Classification and habitat

Quetzals are birds of the Trogonidae family, genus Pharomachrus, which inhabit tropical forests around the world. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this bird lives from southern Mexico to the Bolivian Amazon.

Quetzal classification and habitat

species varieties

There are five different types of quetzals, all native to the American continent.

Golden-headed Quetzal (P. auriceps)

This species is known for its bright green color that contrasts with the golden head. This bird is relatively common in Central and South America, where it lives in humid forests. It feeds mainly on fruits and, to a lesser extent, on insects. Like other quetzals, it is a solitary bird that only gathers in the breeding season.

Golden-headed Quetzal (P. auriceps)

Golden quetzal (P. fulgidus)

This species mainly inhabits cloud and humid forests of the Caribbean coast in Colombia, Guyana and Venezuela. Like other quetzals, only the male has distinct colors : the golden yellow beak and bright green feathers are characteristic. It feeds on fruits, berries and insects.

Crested Quetzal  (P. antisianus)

This bird inhabits primeval forests in the Andes between 1,200 and 3,000 meters high. The male’s head and neck are metallic turquoise, while the torso is vibrant red.

As with other quetzals, females are opaque in color, mostly brown and green. These specimens are distinguished mainly by the crest characteristic of adult males. The crest grows just above the beak.

Peacock quetzal (P. pavoninus)

Also known as the “red-beaked widow”, this is one of the quetzals that least resembles the so-called resplendent quetzal. This bird is native to the Amazon River basin, between Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia; and is the only one of its kind that lives east of the Andes mountain range.

This species has bright colors, especially in males. They display a bright red beak, while females have a more opaque color.

Quetzal-resplendent (P. mocinno)

Quetzal-resplendent (P. mocinno)

The resplendent quetzal is an iconic bird of Central and South America. In fact, it is the national bird of Guatemala and gives its name to its currency. There are two subspecies,  P. m. costaricensis  and  P. m. mocinno.

It has an iridescent green body and red chest. Depending on the light, quetzals glow green, cobalt, yellow and even blue. This bird is distinguished by its long tail, which can measure more than 60 centimeters.

an endangered species

Of the five species of quetzals, four are not considered to be endangered. However, the resplendent quetzal is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “near threatened”.

The North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) also lists the resplendent quetzal on its “Watch List” as a species of major concern.

Today,  the biggest threat to this spectacular bird is the loss of its natural habitat. Deforestation and agricultural crops are the main risk factors for the resplendent quetzal.

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