Photo: Male resplendent quetzal

Sacred to ancient Mesoamerican people, gorgeously plumed quetzals live in the mountains of Central America.

Photograph by Steve Winter

Map

Map: Quetzal range

Quetzal Range

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Fast Facts

Type:
Bird
Diet:
Omnivore
Size:
Body, 15 to 16 in (38 to 40.5 cm); tail, 24 in (61 cm)
Weight:
7 to 8 oz (200 to 225 g)
Protection status:
Threatened
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Quetzal compared with adult man

The resplendent quetzal is an aptly named bird that many consider among the world's most beautiful. These vibrantly colored animals live in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America where they eat fruit, insects, lizards, and other small creatures.

During mating season, male quetzals grow twin tail feathers that form an amazing train up to three feet (one meter) long. Females do not have long trains, but they do share the brilliant blue, green, and red coloring of their mates. Male colors tend to be more vibrant.

Resplendent quetzal pairs use their powerful beaks to hollow hole nests in rotted trees or stumps. Inside, they take turns incubating two or three eggs—though males have such long tails that they sometimes stick outside the nest.

Young quetzals can fly at about three weeks of age, but males do not begin to grow their long tail plumes for three years.

Resplendent quetzals are also known as Guatemalan quetzals, and the birds are the symbol of that nation. Guatemala also trades in currency known as the "quetzal."

Unfortunately, these striking birds are threatened in Guatemala and elsewhere throughout their range. They are sometimes trapped for captivity or killed, but their primary threat is the disappearance of their tropical forest homes. In some areas, most notably Costa Rica's cloud forests, protected lands preserve habitat for the birds and provide opportunities for ecotourists and eager bird watchers from around the globe.

Such admirers continue a long history of adoration for the quetzal. The bird was sacred to the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples, and royalty and priests wore its feathers during ceremonies.

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