According to legend, Tecun Uman, a Maya chief, died while defending his land and his people from the Spanish conquistadores. He was mortally wounded and blood covered his chest. The Quetzal, who never submitted itself to captivity, wanted to keep Tecum Uman’s spirit alive. So, the bird flew and landed with its own chest on the blood of the brave Maya chief. For this reason, people say, the feathers on the chest of the Quetzal are red. Until recently, it was thought that the Resplendent Quetzal could not be bred or held for any long time in captivity, and indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged. For this reason it is a traditional symbol of liberty. However, a zoo in Mexico has kept this species since 1992, and in 2004 breeding in captivity was announced.
The Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) has been called “the most spectacular bird in the New World” The Quetzal was the most sacred symbol of the Aztecs and Mayas. Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, is seen wearing the long tail plumes of the male Quetzal, which only the royalty of these societies were allowed to wear. The name quetzal is an ancient Indian term for tail feather and the bird itself represents liberty. The quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird as well as its currency.
This gorgeously colored bird has a green body (showing iridescence from green-gold to blue-violet) and red breast. Their green upper tail coverts hide their tails and in breeding males are particularly splendid, being longer than the rest of the body. The primary wing coverts are also unusually long and give a fringed appearance. The male has a helmet-like crest. The bill, which is partly covered by green filamentous feathers, is yellow in mature males and black in females. The skin of the Quetzal is very thin and easily torn, so it has evolved thick plumage to protect its skin. Like other members of the trogon family, it has large eyes that adapt easily to the dim light of its forest home.
The Quetzal prefers to live in a mountainous (elevations of 4,000 to 10,000 feet) and humid area with thick vegetation. They use old tree trunks to build their nests. When not breeding, the Quetzal is a solitary bird. Although they mainly eat fruit, the Quetzal will also eat wasps, ants and frogs. The two most important parts of the Quetzal diet are avocadoes and fruit of the laurel. The Quetzal is an endangered species. Though it has been protected in Costa Rica, in other Central American countries the Quetzal is in danger because of hunting and destruction of its habitat.