Central America's Elusive & Magnificent Resplendent Quetsal:
Picture yourself in a forest with epiphyte laden trees. Mosses, ferns, and orchids drip huskily with moisture. You are enshrouded by clouds tha meander gently through the understory. Visibility is about fifty feet. All is quiet. Then suddenly, from above, you hear two deep, smooth notes tinged with melancholy. The first note rising slightly, the second descending. As you begin to examine the interlaced branches above you, the melody occurs once more. Then abruptly a burst of squawks and you watch a streak of scarlet and green careen across an open expanse, landing on a branch only twenty feet away. The clouds part for a moment and you're bedazzled by an emerald gleam. Before you sits an adult male Quetzal adorned with a Mohawklike crest. A crimson red breast and white tail are surrounded by metallic green plumage. All in all, from head to the tip of its "tail" you have three feet of bird perched before you.
Formally known as the Resplendent Quetzal, it is one of the most ornate creatures of the wild. Its home for most of the year is highland cloud forests. What is commonly called the "tail" are actually a pair of two foot long feathers known as tail coverts. In flight this elegant train of glistening emerald shimmers and sways much like the long ribbons of rhythmic gymnasts. The male Resplendent Quetzal will flaunt these feathers during the mating season in a spectacular display flight in which it flies sixty meters upwards and comes swooping down in a graceful arc.
If you were Mayan you would be on holy ground. Also the Toltecs revered their rain god, Quetzlcoatl, which was half bird, half serpent. Only royalty were permitted to wear Quetzal feathers which served as a substitute for the gems and diamonds known to European royalty. Mayan kings wore headdresses of dozens of the long feathers with their stunning iridescence. And later Montezuma, the Aztec supreme ruler, wore a cloak of over seven hundred long Quetzal plumes.
The Resplendent Quetzal belongs to the family Trogonidae , whose forty members occur in the American Neotropics, as well as Africa and Asia. However, the greatest diversity of trogon species is in Central America. The Trogonidae family is the sole member of the order Trogoniiformes, whose closest relatives seem to be in the order Coraciiformes (kingfisher and motmot order). The trogons have a unique heterodactyl toe alignment with the first and second toes facing backwards (as opposed to the more common configuration of the first and fourth toes facing backwards). Their convex shaped wings are an adaptation for flight deep within leafy tropical forests, that allows tight curves and sudden ascents and descents. There seems to be some fossorial evidence of trogon predecessors in the Tertiary period in France. More recent fossils were uncovered in Minas Gerais, Brazil (dated at about 20,000 years before the present).
There are two basic populations of Resplendent Quetzals: one in the mountains that run from southern Mexico through Guatemala and into Honduras; another in Costa Rica and northern Panama. One of the most comprehensive series of studies on Quetzal ecology has been conducted in Monteverde, Costa Rica.
These birds belong to a group of animals known as altitudinal migrants. This means that the species concerned moves up and down mountain slopes during the course of a year. In Monteverde, Resplendent Quetzals nest at about 1500 meters in the heart of cloud forests. Here they build nests in cavities in dead tree trunks about three to twenty meters from the ground. These trunks must be in an advanced state of decomposition in order for a Quetzal to be able to excavate the wood because their bills are not particularly strong. Chicks are initially fed an assortment of items such as lizards, insects, and frogs, but when they fledge after about 27 days they are forever thereafter highly dependent on fruit, particularly wild avocados. Eighteen different species of avocados (family Lauraceae) constitute 80% of the diet of the Monteverde population. Many of the avocado species occur at different altitudes, and give fruit at different times of year. This is what pushes Quetzals to migrate down the Pacific slope after about July, and then back over the mountains to about 800 meters altitude on the Caribbean slope after September. In November the first individuals begin to reappear in their nesting grounds.
This migratory behavior has complicated the conservation of the species. Nesting grounds are well protected within the confines of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, however the feeding grounds from July to September are primarily on private property. The continued existence of this species will depend on the willingness of private landholders to protect forests and particularly Lauraceae species on which the Resplendent Quetzal depends. There is presently an initiative underway, spearheaded by the Monteverde Conservation League, to organize and persuade landholders to conserve parts of their land for this and other altitudinal migrants.
As always further support for conservation in the tropics is still crucial to the preservation of a disproportionally large amount of the earth's biodiversity. The Resplendent Quetzal has been regarded with awe for at least over two thousand years, by a variety of cultures. Let us hope that we too can continue to ensure that this species endures for many more centuries.
Contributed to TWG by Marc Egger