In Search of Costa Rica’s Elusive Quetzal

In Search of Quetzal


The quetzal may be small and pigeon like but it makes up for its stature with audacious plumage: vivid, shimmering green comes alive in the abundant sunlight of Central America flashing emerald to gold back to spectacular green.

While everyone spoke of its beauty, the bird was so elusive that early European naturalists believed the quetzal was just a myth of the Central American natives. Which makes sense since early Mayans and Aztecs worshiped a god called Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and depicted him with a headdress of quetzal feathers. In fact, the bird’s name is derived from quetzalli, an Aztec word meaning “precious” or “beautiful.”

One English naturalist, Osbert Salvin, wrote he was “determined, rain or no rain, to be off to the mountain forests in search of quetzals,to see and shoot which has been a daydream for me ever since I set foot in Central America.” Salvin, the first European ever to record an observation of the bird, noted it was “unequaled for splendour among the birds of the New World,” then he promptly shot it. During the next few decades, thousands of quetzal plumes crossed the Atlantic to adorn fashionable hats of the elite in Paris, Amsterdam, and London.

The Mayans considered killing the bird to be a capital crime, but they too revered its feathers. They were worth more than gold in the Mayan society. Guatemalans were so taken by the bird they named their currency after it. The bird also graces the national shield, flag, postage stamps, along with their money.

Although the Costa Ricans don’t worship the bird with quite as much fervor, the bird is more easily seen in Costa Rica. Especially during breeding season (March-June) when the narcissistic males show off their beautiful tail plumes and scarlet red breast in spiraling skyward flights and dizzing dives causing their tail feathers to ripple behind in part of the courtship ritual. If you can’t make it out for their mating season, try to time your visit during the bird’s meticulous feeding hours, which you can almost set your watch by. They eat insects, small frogs, lizards, and the fruit of the broad-leafed aguacatillo.

From Ask About Honeymoons

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