The Resplendent Quetzal is found in high altitude cloud forests from southern Mexico, south as far as western Panama. It is the national bird of Guatemala, where it’s image is featured on the country’s flag and coat of arms and its name that of Guatemalan currency, shortened to GTQ, an abbreviation for “Guatemalan quetzal”. It was also of great symbolic importance to the native Mesoamericans, part of Aztec and Mayan legends, art and lore. Tourists who are birders, photographers and ecotourists eagerly seek it out, thus the species has economic importance, and because of its limited range, it is a justifiable source of pride to the folks living where it is found. They do not survive captivity and are fully protected.
They are also the largest of the trogons, an order of birds, the Trogoniformes, which contains but a single, fascinating family, the Trogonidae, which contains 46 species, all found in the warmer tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa and the Americas. They branched off from progenitors with other bird families as far back as the early Eocene, at least some 49 million years ago. But then they were further divided by continental drift separating the continents, into the New World group and those of the Eastern hemisphere, with greatest number of species, about 24 in the New World. There is some debate based on taxonomy over the exact number of species. All trogons are colourful with iridescent dark blues and greens on the back and bright red, pink, orange, bright yellow or (especially females of some species) soft brown bellies, depending on the species. They tend to have similar habits, nesting in holes, eating mostly fruits and insects, and living relatively solitary, sedentary lives. “Trogon” is Greek for “nibbling”, in reference to the birds biting away at soft wood to create nesting cavities.
The Resplendent Quetzal is famous for the long upper tail coverts that grow from above the base of the tail, and give the bird its name, from an Aztec word for a long, “upstanding” plume, one that is in demand as a souvenir to the point where museum specimens have to be protected from thievery. Those long feathers are extremely flexible and so they undulate as the bird flies. The first quetzal I ever saw was in flight, on the slopes of Mount Poás, Costa Rica; I was beyond thrilled. When the bird is inside the nest cavity, very high above the ground, the long feathers often bend around and hang out the entrance hole.
They have a distinct, easily identified mournful call. They tend to be fairly solitary. They’ll eat large insects, small vertebrates such as lizards, and fruit, with wild avocado being a favourite. I’ve shown one in an avocado tree. They are challenging to portray as the iridescent colours (the feathers are really dull, what you see is a reflected part of the light spectrum) can vary through shades of green, blue, violet, bronze or gold, depending on angles between light source and viewer.
This oil painting is approximately life-size and is on birchwood and is 30 X 14 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada