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The quetzal – Headdress of the kings – Our quest – Familiarity breeds contempt. (Map this!)

The Resplendent Quetzal is a beautiful, evasive bird prominent in Mayan art. It belongs to the trogon family, which boasts some very colorful birds. The Quetzal, a turquoise green bird with a brilliant red breast is very hard to see inspite of that. The prominent feature is its tail, upto three feet long, that gives it its distinctive flying profile.

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Stucco work, Palenque

The Quetzal was revered by the Maya, its long feathers worn proudly by kings. Quetzal feathers were a prized item of trade. Along with jade, they represented “all things of value”. It is hard to miss how popular the Quetzal feathers were, they are everywhere in Mayan art. In stelae scattered around Maya sites in various stages of destruction, we would often look for the long, distinctive feathers in the headdress for orientation. The feathers in the headdress represented protection of the gods and distinguished a king from the common people and the nobility. The Mexican deity “Quetzalcoatl” or feathered serpent, seen in the great pyramid of Chichén Itzá, also shows the influence of the Quetzal. Surrounded by myths and mysticism, represented on pyramids, pottery and murals, we developed an interest in actually seeing it.

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Chichén Itzá

We have tried twice, unsucessfully, to see the quetzal. The Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica is ground zero for spotting it. Lacking familiarity with the associated Mayan stories and myths, it was “just another” beautiful bird for us, we lacked the drive to see it. On this trip, at “El Ranchito” near the Biotopo de Quetzal in Baja Verapaz in Guatemala, we were a bit too early to see it, the fruit trees that draw the quetzal were not flowering yet. The quetzal doesn’t stay in one place, its habitat is dictated by the availability of the various species of avocado, making it hard to spot as well as preserve. Today, it is on the endangered species list.

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The quetzal feathers frame the kingly figure in Kabah, Yucatan

Colorful as it is, the resplendent Quetzal is by no means the most beautiful bird. The Indian peacock, for example, with its amazing tail feathers, iridescent blue-green colors and a royal crown, would arguably be considered “more” beautiful. It has its association in mythology too, Lord Krishna wears its feathers in his crown and it is associated with the Hindu God Kartikaya. The peacock on top of the Moghul ruins in New Delhi during dusk is one of the most beautiful sights to see. But, somewhat fortunately, the peacock is relatively easy to spot. One hardly has to go on a quest to see it.

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Maasai Mara, Africa

I remember, in Africa, after our curiosity to see a lion was sated, spending days in the Okavango delta in Botswana looking for the Pell’s Fishing Owl, a bird rarely seen. After five days of searching, we were finally able to spot it sitting high up in a tree. The thrill of seeing the majestic lion, the awesome elephant, the graceful giraffe give away, after a while, to a strong wish to see the rare.

Familiarity breeds contempt and repeated visits invite disrespect. The tribal women of the Malaya Mountain use the abundant sandalwood as fuel. –Old Sanskrit saying

If the quetzal were as common as the colorful keel blled toucans or the equally resplendent wild turkey, would they have been as revered? If the wild turkey were rarer that it is, would we see Mayan art with kings proudly wearing its iridescent feathers?

4 Responses to “In search of the Resplendent Quetzal”

  1. Chris Levaggi says:

    Hi Guys,

    I’m enjoying the education and feel that I’m along for the ride. But with no risk of Tourista! Keep your eyes on the road.

    Bella and I just wrapped up the ski season at Alpine. There is still 120″ up on the mountain. We ticked off a couple of new tight chutes from our “to-do” list. It was a parents proud moment to see a daughter safely negotiate a tight, difficult and potentially dangerous descent. Bella wore a wide smile of pride as she came scooting out from between the rocks.

    She says she’d like to learn to telemark next season. That should insure that I can keep up with her, at least for another season.



  2. k says:

    keep looking, I remember it being on the cover of a guidebook and it was a bit of a mission for me to see it as well. we saw it and the hunt in itself created quite the memorable event. The Quetzal was the first thing I thought of reading your recent bird watching excerpt.

  3. Vinay says:

    Nice, well-written essay on an exotic bird. Haven’t heard of it before.
    I think rarity=>value relationship is a strong principle in our minds. It takes an effort to break this habit of thought.

  4. Ada says:

    Hope you get a picture of this bird to share with the rest of us.

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