Quetzals are considered by many people to be the most beautiful bird in the world. They are medium-sized birds that live in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America. There are six species of quetzal. They are most well-known for the extremely striking colors in their plumage, and the very long tail feathers of the males. Read on to learn about the quetzal.

Description of the Quetzal

Quetzals are a rather squat, robust looking bird. Their most striking feature is their coloration, as their plumage is a combination of brilliant blues, greens, and reds. The main body feathers are a metallic green or blue, with a vibrant red chest and belly. Feathers under the tail are sometimes a contrasting white.

Both males and females have these colors, but those of the males tend to be more vivid, and the females’ colors sometimes include grays or browns. In some species, the male and female are differently colored, i.e. they are “sexually dimorphic.” Their beak is bright yellow. The males grow twin tail feathers that develop into an amazing train up to 3 ft (1 m) long, and the males of some species have a golden-green crest on their heads.

Interesting Facts About the Quetzal

Quetzals have been admired for their beauty for thousands of years. They also live a specialized lifestyle deep in wooded or forested areas. Because of these, there are several interesting facts about quetzals.

  • Sacred Animal – Quetzals were sacred to the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples; their feathers were used as money, and dignitaries and royalty wore them during ceremonies.
  • Symbol of Liberty – The resplendent quetzal has a reputation for killing itself soon after being captured or caged. This is why, in several cultures, it has become a traditional symbol of liberty.
  • Currency – Guatemala trades in a currency known as the “quetzal.”
  • Population – Partly because they are hunted for their beautiful feathers, it is estimated there are only 50,000 quetzals remaining in the wild.
  • Large Eyes – They have relatively large eyes for birds; these help them to see in the dim light of the deep woods and forests in which they live.

Habitat of the Quetzal

Quetzals live in moist tropical forests, or humid woodlands in mountainous regions of Central America. They prefer to live at altitudes of 4,000 – 10,000 ft (1,200 – 3,000 m).

Distribution of the Quetzal

The distribution of the quetzal is limited to Central America

Diet of the Quetzal

Quetzals are considered to be fruit-eating specialists. However, they supplement their diet with insects, lizards, frogs, and other small animals, which makes them omnivores.

Quetzal and Human Interaction

Because of their wonderful appearance and scarcity, quetzals are a popular tourist attraction for bird-watchers in some locations. They are sometimes trapped to be kept as pets, or for captive tourist attractions, which has drastically reduced their numbers. The primary threat to quetzals is deforestation and fragmentation of the tropical forests in which they live.


Quetzals have not been domesticated.

Does the Quetzal Make a Good Pet

Quetzals are Endangered. They react very badly to being placed in captivity. Even established zoos have major problems keeping them to a standard where they will breed in captivity.

Quetzal Care

Quetzals react extremely badly to being held in captivity. Caring for these lovely birds should only be attempted by people with highly specialized knowledge.

Behavior of the Quetzal

Quetzals usually live in holes in trees, close to the top of the canopy layer of the forest. They sometimes hollow out these holes themselves, but often use holes that have been hollowed out by woodpeckers and abandoned. Quetzals are mostly solitary, and are “crepuscular, which means they are most active during the twilight hours.

They are not strong fliers and rarely descend to the ground, partly because their feet are highly adapted to perching and hopping about in trees. Quetzals are territorial and, although they are usually quiet birds, they make whistle-like calls at dawn and dusk to advertise their possession of an area.

Reproduction of the Quetzal

Quetzals become sexually mature at approximately 5 – 6 years of age. Before their first mating season (March to June), the males grow twin tail feathers that develop into an amazing train up to 3 ft (1 m) long. They do not grow these feathers until they are at least 3 years of age. During courtship, the female often mirrors the movements of the male.

After mating, the eggs are laid in a hole-nest previously made by a woodpecker, or the pair make their own hole-nest in a rotted tree or stump, by using their powerful beaks. The hole-nests are usually about 30 ft (10 m) high off the ground. The female lays 2 – 3 eggs, which both the male and female take turns incubating for approximately 17 – 18 days, until they hatch. The young quetzal can fly (“fledge”) at about 3 weeks of age.

Beliefs, Superstitions, and Phobias About the Quetzal

There is a Guatemalan legend in which, after the Spaniards arrived, a terrible fight ensued between them and Mayans. After the battle, many quetzals landed on the bodies of the dead Mayans. According to the story, the blood on the bodies stained the birds’ feathers, giving them their red chests.