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What is a Resplendent Quetzal?

By Debra Durkee
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The resplendent quetzal is a brilliantly colored tropical bird that is native to Central America. The national bird of Guatemala, it is also known as the Guatemalan quetzal. It has had a long history as an important part of many Central American cultures, but is now being threatened due to the deforestation of the tropical forests.

The body of the resplendent quetzal averages between 15 and 16 inches (about 38 to 40 cm), and the tail can add up to an additional 24 inches (61 cm) to the bird's overall length. The tail feathers of male birds grow even longer at the beginning of the mating season in March, when they are trying to impress prospective female partners. At this time, males can be seen with tail feathers up to 3 feet (1 m) long. Known and treasured for their brilliant colors, the birds have heads and backs that are a brilliant metallic green, and dark red chests; the male has a golden-green crest on the top of his head. The resplendent quetzal female has similar coloring, but lacks the bright, metallic brilliance of the male.

The native habitat of the resplendent quetzal is high up in the tropical rain forests of Central America. The bird is typically found in the tree canopies at elevations above 4,000 feet (1,220 m), where the temperature is cooler. Nests are built in holes in trees, which both males and females will make by digging at the trees with their beaks if no satisfactory nesting holes are to be found. Only about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, both parents will take turns sitting on the eggs. An inhabited nest can sometimes be identified by the long tail feathers sticking out of the nest's hole.

There are typically two eggs produced in the breeding season, which are light blue and laid directly on the floor of the nest. Within a few weeks of hatching, the young birds begin to develop their distinctive plumage, although their coloring is typically muted until they reach maturity at three years of age. Parents take turns feeding them until they leave the nest, after the father teaches them how to fly.

The resplendent quetzal has long been sacred to the Aztecs and the Mayas, and their feathers were a symbol of royalty and associated with the god Quetzalcoatl. Mythology surrounds these birds, which are said to resemble green lightning when in flight, so regal that they are thought to never touch the ground at any time during their lives. Folklore stated that this symbol of regal independence would die if ever taken captive, beginning the practice of plucking feathers from birds and releasing them rather than trying to capture them or raise them in captivity.

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