The beautiful and elusive quetzal is one of Central America’s most striking and remarkable animal denizens. Native to the jungle highlands of Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Belize, today the quetzal is not the most widely-known tropical bird; however, it has a long history of admiration and even reverence from native peoples stretching back to the Aztec and Maya empires of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The encroaching presence of man and the constant danger of hungry predators has made it a rare animal, difficult for the average tourist to glimpse, but well worth the effort to any fan of exotic birds or natural beauty.
The quetzal, of which there are six species, is named for the brilliance of its feathers, especially in the tail. In the Nahuatl language spoken by the ancient Aztecs, the word “quetzal” is a reference to this plumage; “quetz” means literally “to stand up,” as the long feathers covering the bird’s hind quarters can be seen to do. The resplendent quetzal, perhaps the most recognized of this still rather obscure breed, was the first species to be given this title; along with its sibling genera, its population skirts the edge of ecological jeopardy, due to a combination of human encroachment and low birth rates.
Immortalized by Ancients
The beauty and distinctiveness of the quetzal is thought to have inspired at least two ancient civilizations to partially deify it. The Maya and their northern neighbors & successors, the Aztecs, shared a god whom the Maya believed to be the creator of the fifth and current world-realm. Called Kukulkan in the Maya tongue, the Aztecs referred to him as Quetzalcoatl :the “coatl’ suffix meaning “snake.” He became the god responsible for many important and impressive accomplishments, including the creation of humanity and the invention of maize.
Wealth of the Forest
The quetzal is also revered, in a sense, during modern times, as the bird lent its name to the official currency of Guatemala. In 1925, President Jose Maria Orellana replaced the peso with the Guatemalan quetzal, which remains in use today in both coin and bill form. The bills do not feature a picture of their avian namesake, but rather display famous persons and events from Central American and Guatemalan history. The quetzal is further divided into 100 centavos, which are referred to by the slang term “lenes.”
Catching a Glimpse
Finding the quetzal in its natural habitat can be a tiring and frustrating experience. You might imagine that a bird with such glistening green feathers (and a bright red underbelly to boot) might have difficulty concealing itself, but the quetzal can fade into its jungle surroundings with surprising ease. Therefore, if you’re planning an expedition to glimpse this rare and amazing bird, consider enlisting the aid of a guide by contacting a local bird-watching agency. The best areas to find the quetzal lie outside of the lowland jungles of the northern Yucatan, which are generally too hot for the bird’s comfort, but a guide will be able to point out the best locations and times to snap a photo or catch a glimpse of these golden-green beauties in their wild habitat. Hearing the quetzal’s call is somewhat easier, a feat which can be accomplished quite simply at a variety of popular Mayan archaeological sites, such as Chichn Itz and Tikal. Standing in an open plaza or atop a pyramid and clapping one’s hands is likely to elicit the signature call of the quetzal in response, which must have been a familiar sound to all the ancient Mesoamericans who once called those stole relics their homes.
Linda Patterson is a birding enthusiast from the USA. The Mexican Yucatan Peninsula offers amazing birding opportunities. Check these birding tours for more information on this great destination.Like this blog post? Buy me a coffee or send me a tip!!!