Cloud forest and montane forests of Central America. Range from Southern Mexico to Panama.
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
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)
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)
Calling: The call of the quetzal is very loud and distinct enough to tell it apart from other members of the Trogon family. The call is described as soft, deep, full and very powerful, with closely slurred notes. Females have weaker and more subdued tones. The quetzal has many different calls according to the situation it is encountering. The warning call sounds like "weec-weec; the male also flicks his tail feathers during this call. While taking flight or in agitation the bird gives off a sharp crackling "perwick" sound. The male's common song is "keow-kowee-keow-k'loo-keow-keloo." Calling during mating season is of a whining or complaining nature, and both birds call nasally when they are going to replace each other at the nest. Quetzals are most vocal during calm cloudy dawns, and misty afternoons. On bright days they call very little, and during very windy days they hardly make any sounds.
(Grzimek 1972, http, Skutch 1983, Skutch and Stiles 1989)
Territory and Migration: The male quetzal claims its territory through dawn and mid-morning calling and affirms the area again at dusk. During its territorial call the quetzal melodiously whistles two hollow high-pitched notes, one ascending steeply and the other descending. This is repeated every eight to ten minutes.
- Key Behaviors
Communication and Perception
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)
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 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.
Evolution: The quetzal is a member of the Trogon family. It is hypothesized that a possible ancestor of this group is Coraciiformes (Kingfisher), based on fossils from the Upper Eocene of Oligocene of France.
(Birkhead and Brooke 1991, Campbell and Lack 1985)
Latin Name Explanation: Pharomachrus mocino. Pharos (Greek) mantle, a cloak. Makros (Greek) long, refers to the tail.
Cultural Significance: The quetzal is and has been important to the people of Central America for many years. Some natives call it The Rare Jewel Bird of the World. This bird is also closely associated with Quetzalcoatl (Mexican wind god and culture hero). The name was derived from Nahuatlquetzali, meaning tail feather and cohuatl meaning snake. This god was depicted as a plumed serpent, the quetzal was symbolic of the cloud, while the snake symbolized the wind. The common name of the quetzal was derived from ancient Indian cultures.
The bird was always thought to be unable to survive in captivity, so it came to represent liberty and freedom to the Indians of Mexico and Central America. The brilliant green feathers signified fertility to these cultures, and only nobles and priest were allowed to wear them. Anyone found in possession of quetzal feathers was killed. The Mayas considered the feathers worth gold, so killing a quetzal was a capital crime. The great green was also symbolic of water (life-giving fluid) and of maize a crop of many Meso-Americans.
The quetzal was also thought as a sign of liberty and freedom during the colonial period. Popular folklore relates how the quetzal got its dazzling blood-red breast: in 1524, when the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated the Mayan chieftan Tecun Uman, a gilt-and-green quetzal alighted on the Indian's chest at the moment he fell mortally wounded; when the bird took off again, his breast was stained with the brilliant crimson blood of the Mayan.
Significance to Guatemala: The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala because of its connection with freedom. The bird appears in the coat of arms, of the country. It is also displayed on the Order of Quetzal, the highest decoration of the country. The currency in Guatemala is called the quetzal. In Guatemala, the quetzal image also surfaces on the flag, and postage stamps. The attention given to the quetzal by Guatemala has been detrimental to the species, as many desire to capture the bird for display, rather than preserve it in its natural habitat.
Erin Pena (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.
uses sound to communicate
- bilateral symmetry
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
- native range
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
uses touch to communicate
uses sight to communicate
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King, Warren B. 1977. Endangered Birds of the World. Smithsonian Inst. Press Pub.
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Skutch, Alexander F. and Stiles, F. Gary. 1989. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Pub. Assoc. Ithaca, NY.
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Skutch, Alexander F. 1960. Life Histories of Central American Birds II. Cooper Ornithological Society. Berkeley, Ca.
Slud, Paul. 1964. The Birds of Costa Rica: Distribution and Ecology. NY.