Quetzal—The Resplendent Bird


COSTA RICA covers less than 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, yet it is home to 875 registered species of birds. According to one source, that is more than the number found in Canada and the United States combined. It is, therefore, not surprising that Costa Rica has become a principal destination for bird-watching enthusiasts. Let us share with you our journey to view one of these birds, the resplendent quetzal.

In the early 1500’s, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico. There, as a gift from the Aztecs, he received a headdress of quetzal feathers. Only Aztec royalty had the privilege of wearing such highly esteemed adornments. The jade-green plumes of the quetzal may have been considered more valuable than gold.

Today this extraordinarily beautiful bird claims as its habitat a vast territory from Mexico to Panama. The quetzal can be found in cloud forests at altitudes of between 4,000 and 10,000 feet [1,200 to 3,000 m]. The clouds in the forests are the product of rising warm air cooling quickly.  The results are year-round lush vegetation in verdant tones and massive trees that reach one hundred feet [30 m] or more into the fog.

About 100 miles [200 km] north of San José is the Santa Elena Forest Reserve—a good location to observe the quetzal in its natural environment. With the help of a guide, we begin our quest to sight a resplendent quetzal. Because of its jadelike coloring, the bird is difficult to see, as it blends into the forest’s foliage. Our guide begins to mimic its soft, mellow call. The sound is similar to a whimpering pup. In fact, upon hearing the quetzal’s response, one woman in our group actually thinks that there is a dog lost in the forest!

Soon, some 50 feet [15 m] up, a male shyly comes out on a branch to investigate. Through binoculars its radiant colors appear even more spectacular than we had imagined. Its breast is a deep crimson-red, contrasting with its jadelike feathers. Adding to its stunning splendor are its white tail feathers, which contrast with its two iridescent green ones. Known as streamers, they measure some 24 inches [60 cm] in length. To see the quetzal sitting high on a limb with its long streamers flowing gently in the breeze is a sight of tranquil beauty.

A quetzal sighting is a unique experience. In fact, our guide mentioned that it often takes more than one trip into the forest to see one. The best time to observe quetzals is during their nesting season, which runs from March to June. During this time they may have two broods of two eggs each.

Upon returning to the reserve office, we hear another quetzal. Gliding gracefully and trailed by its green streamers, it lands on a limb not more than 16 feet [5 m] from where we are sitting! The guide informs us that a chick has disappeared from its nest. The father is going from tree to tree in search of its offspring. We learn that only about 25 percent of eggs survive to maturity. The rest are lost to such predators as squirrels, emerald toucanets, brown jays, weasels, and tayras. Another challenge to the quetzals’ survival involves the location of their nests, which are woodpeckerlike holes that quetzals make between 10 and 60 feet [3-20 m] above the ground in old decaying tree trunks. When heavy rain falls, the holes can flood or collapse.

We also learn that the quetzal’s favorite food is the wild avocado. It will sit on a limb eyeing an avocado that dangles from the branch of a neighboring tree. Then, with a flurry of beating wings, it will zero in on its target, grab the fruit with its mouth, and return to its roost. It swallows the fruit whole and some 20 to 30 minutes later regurgitates the avocado’s large seed.

In their search for wild avocados, quetzals will migrate to different slopes of the Continental Divide. For example, from July to September, they are at home on the Pacific slope. Then in October they move to the Caribbean side to feed on a new crop of avocados.

As we cross a suspended bridge about 100 feet [30 m] above the forest floor, a quetzal almost flies into us! It seems that this bird was in pursuit of its lunch when we crossed its path. The female sits just above us, giving us a scolding look for intruding.

We are also told that another fruit they enjoy is the blackberry, which grows on thorny bushes. As the quetzals swoop down to grab the fruit, they sometimes get their streamers caught in the thorns and lose them. Eventually, though, their tail feathers grow back.

In this way the bird can live up to its name. “Quetzal” is taken from the Aztec word “quetzalli,” meaning “precious” or “beautiful.” Unfortunately, its beauty has posed a threat to the quetzal’s survival. In fact, the quetzal is listed as an endangered species. They have been hunted for their skins, which have been sold as souvenirs. Some of the birds have been captured alive to be sold as pets. However, according to our guide, the quetzal now enjoys some legal protection from such plundering.

Yet another threat to its survival is deforestation, which results in loss of habitat. For the protection of this resplendent bird and other wildlife, about 27 percent of Costa Rica has been set aside as preserved areas.

Our journey to view the quetzal has truly been rewarding. True, you can see the headdress of quetzal feathers given to Hernán Cortés in the British Museum in London. But quetzal feathers are far more interesting when seen on a living bird in the wild! For the time being, at least, wild quetzals continue to enjoy freedom and relative safety in the cloud forests of Central America.