Striking Beauty of the Quetzal

The Central American country of Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua and Panama with the Pacific Ocean to the west and south and the Caribbean Sea to the east. With more than 870 registered species of birds, Costa Rica is a prime destination for birding enthusiasts. The Quetzal is one of the most unusual birds in Costa Rica and bird-watchers are thrilled when they manage to sight one of these rather elusive beauties.

The name of the Quetzal is taken from the Aztec word meaning “precious” or “beautiful”. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés visited Mexico in the early 1500s, he was given a headdress of Quetzal feathers as a gift from the Aztecs. This was indeed an honor, as only Aztec royalty had the privilege of adorning themselves with the highly esteemed jade-green plumes of the Quetzal.

The Quetzal can be found from Mexico through to Panama. They reside in the cloud forests at altitudes of between 1,200 to 3,000 meters. As a result of rising warm air cooling quickly, cloud forests have year-round lush vegetation with massive trees that reach up into the semi-permanent mist, to a height of 30 meters or more. This densely forested habitat makes the Quetzal even more difficult to spot, as its stunning jade coloring blends into the forest’s verdant foliage.

The guides in the areas that the Quetzal calls home are generally expert at coaxing this beautiful bird out into the open by imitating its soft, mellow call which is remarkably similar to the whimpering of a puppy. Once the Quetzal is out in the open, birders come to appreciate just how spectacular this bird is. The breast of the male is a deep crimson-red which contrasts with the jade coloring of the rest of its body. Its long tail feathers – known as streamers – are white with two contrasting iridescent green ones. A Quetzal in flight is an unforgettable sight.

The Quetzal’s favorite food is the wild avocado, which it swallows whole, regurgitating the seed about 20 minutes later. In their search for wild avocados, Quetzals migrate to different slopes within the Continental Divide, following the fruit’s ripening cycle from the Pacific slope through to the Caribbean side. Another favorite meal is the wild blackberry that grows on thorny bushes. At times their long tail feathers hook on the thorns and are lost, but soon grow back.

Sadly, man has tried to cash in on the Quetzal’s beauty, and captured birds are either sold as pets or their feathers and skins are sold as souvenirs. Also, development has made inroads into their natural habitat. In an effort to prevent this plunder of its natural resources, Costa Rica has set aside 27 percent of its land as nature reserves and endangered species such as the Quetzal are considered to be protected. It is in these protected areas that bird-watchers can pursue their hobby and stand a good chance of seeing the Quetzal – one of the most beautiful birds in the world.