Sometimes when I pick an animal for this blog I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma. You see, I not only have to choose an animal for my posts, but also whether I am going to pick a single species, a genus, or a family of animals. Sometimes the decision is easy, and other times it’s more complicated. It’s tricky when a family I want to blog about has lots of different species, and I have to try and decide which facts to pull out from the different species. If there’s too much information, sometimes I just have to pick a species and go with it.

Today’s animal is like that – I originally wanted to do a post on quetzals but thought it might be better to just focus on one species of quetzal. Choosing the species of quetzal was easy – with a name like resplendent quetzal, how could I pick anything else? Quetzals, by the way, are beautiful birds that are members of the trogon family, which is probably one of the ugliest names for a family of animals. The resplendent quetzal live in Central America, from southern Mexico to Panama. They inhabit rainforests, where their outrageous colours blend in, and prefer cooler areas, such as those with high elevations.

A close up of a male resplendent quetzal, highlighting his nice crest.  Image credit: Nick Athanas
A close up of a male resplendent quetzal, highlighting his nice crest.
Image credit: Nick Athanas

Quetzals are reasonably sized birds, with the resplendent variety growing up to 16 inches (not including the tail, which can add another 26 inches in males). They are an iridescent green over most of their body, with a bright red breast. Male quetzals have a gold-green crest of feathers on the top of their heads, giving them a bit of a funny appearance. Females are less brightly coloured than males, and sometimes have a grey or dull red breast instead of the crimson colour seen in males. The most conspicuous feature of male quetzals is their tail – it is also bright green, and can be over three feet long.

A male resplendent quetzal with an unbelievably long tail.  Image credit: Joseph C Boone
A male resplendent quetzal with an unbelievably long tail.
Image credit: Joseph C Boone

Resplendent quetzals have strange feet, with two toes pointed forward and two backward. This arrangement is unique to the trogon family, as the trogons have their 3rd and 4th toes pointing forward and their 1st and 2nd pointing back. Most animals that have the two toe forward two toe back arrangement (such as parrots and chameleons) have their 2nd and 3rd digits facing forwards, and the 1st and 4th pointed backwards. The quetzal’s arrangement is a bit strange evolutionarily, as the odd toe positions make the feet quite weak, and the two back toes immovable. Another strange characteristic of the quetzal is its skin, which is extremely thin and easily torn. To compensate for this, the quetzal has very thick plumage which falls out easily when disturbed.

Resplendent quetzals breed from March to June, with the males performing courtship dances and singing to attract a pretty lady quetzal. Quetzals nest in decayed trees or logs, and use their powerful beaks to hollow out a comfy hole for their chicks. Both partners help build the nest, which the neglectful parents don’t line with any comfortable materials. Instead the nest is left bare, which can’t be very nice for the chicks. The parents do, however, keep the nest scrupulously clean after the chicks hatch, removing any waste or debris the young create. Chicks learn to fly after three weeks of age, but do not develop full adult plumage until three years of age.

A female resplendent quetzal at a nest hole. She's still pretty, but not as stunning as the boys.  Image credit: J C Boone
A female resplendent quetzal at a nest hole. She’s still pretty, but not as stunning as the boys.
Image credit: Joseph C Boone

Due to their lovely appearance, quetzals are very important to the tourist industry. Unfortunately this means a good number of these lovely birds are caught and kept in captivity, which has reduced their numbers enough to put them on the near threatened list. Hopefully with better protection for the resplendent quetzal we can keep them from becoming endangered. Save the quetzals!

Cover image credit: Vivek Tiwari

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