Cute bird! The resplendent quetzal and viewing wildlife in Costa Rica

Flying Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre in Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock
Flying Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre in Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

This month's highlighted destination, Costa Rica, is a delight for birdwatchers, many of them in search of one of the most beautiful and sought-after birds in the world – the resplendent quetzal. We admire its plumage,  mythical significance and call...


The quetzal's coat of many colours

The resplendent quetzal is rightly acclaimed as the most magnificent bird in the western hemisphere. Some 40 species of the trogon family, to which the quetzal belongs, inhabit the tropics worldwide, and 10 of those are found in Costa Rica. But the quetzal is the star, regarded as one of the country’s greatest natural treasures.

The pigeon-sized male owes his elegance to the intensity and brilliant contrasts of his colors, the sheen of his plumage, the beauty of his adornments, and the great dignity of his posture. The rich crimson of his underparts contrasts with the iridescent green of his head, chest, and upper parts. His head is crowned with a narrow crest of upstanding feathers that extends from his small yellow bill to his nape. The pointed tips of the long, loose-barbed coverts of his wings project over the crimson of his sides, creating a beautiful scalloped edge.

Most notable of all are his central tail coverts, which stretch far beyond his tail and, like two slender green pendants, undulate gracefully when he flies.

The quetzal is a fruit eater, its diet almost entirely reliant on wild avocados, but when these are not available, the birds will eat insects and even frogs.


Worth more than its weight in gold

As witnessed by ancient sculptures and paintings, the long tail coverts were highly valued as personal adornments by the Aztec and Maya nobility. Mayan kings prized the green tail feathers of the quetzal more than gold itself. They also believed the bird could not live in captivity, and it was therefore the supreme symbol of freedom. This belief persisted for some time, but modern aviculturists have learned how to keep them alive in captivity – a hard negation of a beautiful myth.

The quetzal’s song is eminently worthy of a bird so splendidly attired. Fuller and deeper than those of any other trogon, their songs are not distinctly separated but slurred and fused into a flow of soft, mellow, and unforgettably beautiful sound.


The quetzals' nesting habits

Monogamous pairs of quetzals nest in the holes of trees located in mountain forests or in nearby clearings. The hole, like that of a woodpecker, extends straight downwards from the opening at the top. Usually it is deep enough to conceal all of the sitting birds except the ends of the male’s train.

See a video of quetzals nest building...

On the unlined bottom of the chamber, the female lays two light-blue eggs. She incubates through the night and in the middle of the day.

The male takes a turn on the eggs in the morning and in the afternoon; his train projects through the doorway, fluttering in the breeze. On an epiphyte-burdened trunk, the ends might be mistaken for two green fern fronds.

Sometimes, when his partner arrives to relieve him of his spell in the nest, the male soars above the tree tops shouting a phrase that sounds almost like "very-good very-good." At the summit of his ascent he circles, then dives into sheltering foliage. These "joy flights" seem to express the bird’s great vitality.

Resplendent quetzals are still abundant in Costa Rican tracts of unspoilt mountain forests. So long as such forests are preserved, they are in no danger of becoming extinct, but if they are destroyed, then Central America will lose its most magnificent bird.


Wildlife spotting in Costa Rica

For many visitors, the iconic image that draws them to Costa Rica is a dense rainforest full of wildlife. But actually seeing wild animals is not as easy as it sounds, or as it looks in nature films. With the exception of monkeys, agoutis, and coatis, most forest mammals are nocturnal. And forest creatures are very adept at staying hidden. Even Costa Rica’s largest mammal – the 272kg (600lb) Baird’s tapir – is capable of tiptoeing through the jungle without being spotted. Some birds do feed on or near the forest floor, making them easier to see, and others travel in noisy, visible mixed flocks, specializing in following columns of army ants and snapping up small insects fleeing the ants’ advancing front.

Sudden fluctuations in water level – brought on by tropical downpours – are common events, and freshwater animals are experts at taking cover when flow levels abruptly increase. Along lowland rivers, where water flow is more sluggish, wildlife is more easily spotted, especially on muddy banks, which are home to caimans and alligators. But the full richness of rainforest wildlife actually takes place in the canopy high overhead, where a complex community of species lives, with only minimal contact with the ground. So if you want to see wildlife, your best bet is to get up into the canopy on one of the raised suspension bridges or on a tree-top platform.


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Keep following the blog for more articles on Costa Rica and Tico culture throughout August, from Costa Rican coffee and the country's volcanoes, to the best adventure sports and top beaches...

Read an introduction to the highlights of Costa Rica...


Cute quetzals building a nest...