Published on February 16, 2013 by Amy
The Quetzal is a bird which can be found in the mountain or “cloud” rain forest of Central America and throughout Amazonia. It is described by Roger Tory Peterson and Edward Chalif in their book, Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico, as “the most spectacular bird in the New World”. The bird’s body measures about 14 inches in length, about the size of a pigeon. However, it has tail feathers which can extend as long as three feet. Both the male and the female are an iridescent emerald and golden green with tail feathers in iridescent blues and greens with white undertails. The green camouflages them in the rain forest. The male has a head crest and red breast feathers with a white undertail. The females are duller and have fewer red breast feathers and short tail plumes. The Quetzal is truly a splendid bird.
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Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, was a god of the Toltec-Maya peoples. He is seen wearing the long tail plumes of the male quetzal. The name quetzal is an ancient Mexican term for the tail feather, which means “precious” or “beautiful ” The Aztec of Mexico allowed only royalty or the nobility to use the tail plumes of the Resplendent Quetzal. Elaborate headdresses made from the plumes of the male quetzals were worn in Aztec ceremonies. The birds were caught live and their tail feathers were removed. The birds were then released to grow new feathers.
The Quetzal is also the most sacred symbol of the Mayas. Eighty percent of the present day inhabitants of Guatemala and the neighboring Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintano Roo, and Chiapas are descendants of the ancient Mayas. To the ancient Mayas the Quetzal symbolized freedom and wealth. Freedom, because a Quetzal will die in captivity; wealth, because the Mayas were traders, and quetzal feathers along with jade were their most sought after treasures. These were traded by the Mayas as far north as the central valley of Mexico and as far south as the Empire of the Incas (over three thousand miles) an area that is about eight times the size of their home territory.
The Quetzal is now endangered throughout most of its range. Mountain people still regard the bird with awe, but are very aware of its cash value. The birds are hunted for their feathers and skins. Despite protective laws, tourists and dealers keep illicit trade alive which encourages poaching. Also habitat destruction is destroying large tracts of the cloud rain forest, which is the prime nesting area of the quetzal. Nests are holes in trees with soft rotting wood. Because the quetzal does not have strong beaks and claws, they usually use the old homes of woodpeckers or toucans.
Quetzals are shy, quiet birds except during courtship. At this time the males become more active with high spiral flights used to impress and attract the females. They chase the females through the trees of the cloud forest. The breeding season is during March, April, May, and June. They usually lay two eggs and both parents are responsible for raising the young. The main diet of the quetzal is fruit. However, they also eat insects, frogs, and lizards.
Today the male Quetzal appears on the Guatemalan flag, coat of arms, and stamps. The name “quetzal” is also used as a monetary unit. One Quetzal is equal to one U.S. dollar. Collectors value the older, rare silver coins at $400.
Modern day Mayas see the Quetzal as a symbol of their proud way of life. The future of the quetzal, however, is certain extinction unless something is done now to protect its habitat. The rain forests are being cleared and burned to plant crops for food, with little or no regard for the quetzal or other species of animals which will no longer exist after the destruction of their homes. Future generations may never know the living quetzal.