Some call the quetzal the most beautiful bird in the world, and his brilliant plumage would support his candidacy. The word quetzal meant "tail feather" to the Mayas; the bird himself represented -- and still represents -- liberty. The six sub-species of quetzal are: crested, golden-headed, white-tipped, pavonine, eared and, the best-known, resplendent, which is mostly frugivorous (fruit-eating).
Centuries ago, the Aztecs and Mayas believed the quetzal would not survive in captivity -- that it would rather die than be held prisoner. The Mayas would capture the birds, pluck their feathers, then release them. These brightly hued tail feathers were used in adornments for the ancient rulers. The Rare Jewel Bird of the World, as the quetzal has also been called, has only managed to survive to a small extent in captivity, and it appears in indigenous art.
The quetzal's beautiful feathers are good camouflage in the forest, but he's not a strong flyer; he moves about by hopping from branch to branch, becoming a target for the predators. Among the quetzals' usual natural predators are the kinkajou, the gray and red-bellied squirrels, the ornate hawk-eagle and other birds. The young are also prey for toucans, jays, squirrels and weasels. In 1983, zoologist Nathaniel Wheelwright estimated nest failure to be high, and he attributed this to the long-tailed weasel, along with squirrels and emerald toucanets. He believed snakes, botflies and other animals might invade nests but not attack adult quetzals.
Due to habitat loss and over-hunting, the quetzal is becoming harder to view in the wild. Thus, the biggest threat is loss of habitat as human settlements and agriculture continue to expand. The quetzal is also frequently placed in captivity as a tourist attraction, even though his survival rate is low. Because the tail feathers of a male quetzal were used by the Mayas as money, it was forbidden to kill him; this is no longer a deterrent, of course, for those trafficking in plumage.
The quetzal is classified as "near threatened" because of his moderately rapid population decline, chiefly caused by widespread deforestation by human hands. Although there are protected areas of forest where the quetzal cannot be disturbed, his popularity with tourists remains a danger to his survival, and hunting still occurs in some areas. The rate of decline still needs to be determined, and BirdLife International warns that the quetzal's near-threatened status could become more serious.
Despite his need for freedom, the quetzal has been placed in captivity in order to avoid extinction. The plan is to return him to his natural habitat, but he's not used to confronting natural enemies and hasn't had to search for food; his habits have changed and he needs protection upon release. The Conservation Program of Birds in Danger of Extinction is discussing this procedure. Meanwhile, some groups support the creation of a genetic bank so regions where the birds have disappeared can be repopulated. The quetzal's low reproduction rate and his fragility are concerns for repopulation planners.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Tropical Birds: Pharomachrus mocinno; Ashley A. Dayer
- Quetzal in Captivity: a possible solution for avoiding its definite extinction
- Avian Web: Resplendent Quetzals
- BirdLife International: Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno
- Fruits and the ecology of Resplendent Quetzals; N.T. Wheelwright (The Auk, 1983)
Kathleen March has been a writer for 40 years. A professor and translator of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician, she has studied several languages and uses them for travel and research. She enjoys medieval architecture and avant-garde poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous critical journals in the U.S. and Spain.