South America is one of the most wildlife-rich continents on the planet; its incredibly diverse habitats support an abundance of plant and animal species, including more avian species than anywhere else in the world. |
Bird Tours to South America
Specialised bird tours to any South American country provide an outstanding opportunity for amateur bird watchers, but for those who choose bird tours to Costa Rica or Guatemala, one of the highlights will be a sighting of the vibrant plumage of the Resplendent Quetzal.
Resplendent in Every Way
The national bird of Guatemala, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is one species that certainly lives up to its name. The largest member of the Trogonidae family is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world, with its iridescent green body, vivid red breast and magnificent shimmering tail feathers. Its colours appear to change with the time of day and its unusually long fringed wings add to a striking and noble appearance.
There are two subspecies: mocinno and the slightly smaller costaricensis. Adult males can grow up to 40cm long and their streaming tail feathers up to 65cm. The female's tail feathers are far shorter and her appearance also differs in the colouring of the bill, which is black. The male's bill is yellow and he develops a crest of fine feathers on his head, which looks a bit like a helmet. The tail feathers of the male develop at around three years of age.
In contrast to their beautiful appearance, their call is rather disappointing – more like a monotonous, repetitive whimper than a song. They are quite poor fliers in relation to their larger avian predators (hawks and eagles, among others), and they also fall prey to ground animals like squirrels and weasels.
Depending on the habitat, the breeding season is anywhere between the months of March and May, but outside this time both the males and females are generally solitary. However, once they come together to mate they're both involved in the incubation of the eggs (usually two), which the female lays inside a tree trunk. During the incubation (around 18 days) the parents take turns to sit inside the nesting hole with their tail feathers extending out the front – offering the perfect leaf-like camouflage. They also both take on feeding responsibilities once the chicks hatch, until they are mature enough to go after their own food like insects, berries and fruit. The female often leaves first, while the male stays around to make sure the young are strong enough to fly and survive on their own – which is usually at around three weeks.
Sacred and Steeped in Legend
The Resplendent Quetzal was a sacred totem of the Mayans and Aztecs and its beauty was revered by many pre-Columbian civilisations. Their tail feathers were once used as valuable tender and, even today, the currency of Guatemala is the quetzal.
While the adornment of the quetzal feather was considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and power, it was forbidden to ever harm them – on pain of death. In Aztec and Mayan mythology, the god known as Quetzalcoatl created the Earth and his appearance as a feathered serpent is undoubtedly linked to the quetzal. Quetzalcoatl's magnificent trailing tail feathers were an emblem of abundance and power and he appears in many legends throughout both cultures.
An Enduring Icon of Nature and Culture
Today the bird's significance to the South American culture endures and its image appears everywhere from the artwork and carved masks, to flags, currency and even through the music and dance. Whether it's on bird tours deep into the mysterious cloudforests of the Talamanca Mountains, or to the remote volcanic habitat of Guatemala, for wildlife lovers, a sighting of the arresting Resplendent Quetzal is a genuinely unforgettable experience.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in bird watching. As a passionate lover of birds, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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