Quetzalcoatl and the Lost Belizean Treasure

Pharomachrus m. mocinno
Quetzal Centroamericano

The Mayan Priest/King "Quetzalcoatl," the most powerful figure in Central American mythology, includes in his name the shy Quetzal bird, native to the Mayan highlands.

The Resplendent Quetzal is considered the most spectacular "New World" bird, according to Howell and Webb the authors of A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.

The Quetzal is grouped with Trogans, a pantropical family of brightly colored forest birds that eat jungle fruits. The Quetzal's head is slightly crested, its belly is red and it has extremely elongated, filmy upper-tail convert plumes that extend up to 24 inches beyond the tail's tip. The Quetzal's bill is yellow and this colorful, intense blue-green bird's colors change with the light from golden green to violet blue.

The Resplendent Quetzal's feathers crested the headdresses of Mayan rulers and can be seen depicted in glifs left by the Mayans at Lamanai, Xunantunich and Caracol (popular archeological sites in Belize). Mesoamerican legend credits "The Plumed Serpent," Quetzalcoatl for bestowing corn on humankind. The plumes of this mythical god, like the equally esteemed bird, symbolize wealth, status and agricultural abundance. Throughout the realm, Quetzal feathers were given and accepted as precious tribute. Feathers were plucked from trapped Quetzals, which were then released to grow new ones. Killing a Quetzal brought a death sentence in ancient Mayan cultures!

Homage to this iridescent bird endures in the name of the Guatemalan monetary unit, the Quetzal, yet the bird's population is in crisis throughout Central America. The first blow came from the English during 19th century British Honduras. Stuffed Quetzals were shipped to European admirers and, as late as 1950, the feathers of the Quetzal were a vogue accent to American ladies' hats in New York. Today conservationists struggle to save the bird's habitat, which is falling to cropland, cattle pasture and logging. Belize is now considered outside the Quetzal's territory by over fifty miles. The Quetzal prefers some altitude and humid evergreen forest, although it current range of cloud forest above 1400 feet is most likely due to forest destruction at lower altitudes and its attempt at being inaccessible to hunters of its plumes. The Quetzal's migratory habitat is unique in that it is vertical, indicating it is abnormal and probably a retreat from feather harvesters. It nests in rotten tree stumps and spends most of its time in the forest's upper canopy. Just southwest of the Belizean border, Guatemala has given sanctuary to the Quetzals retreat in its "Sierra de paz Minas" Biosphere Reserve. Created in 1990, this reserve covers 584,000 acres of prime Quetzal habitation in the Mayan Mountains. This same mountain range extends into Belize but this Belizean territory is devoid of Quetzals due to lack of enforcement of this country's conservation laws. Belize is a young country with wonderful opportunities but not the means to enforce their laws, unlike Quetzalcoatl, who would have had a poacher's head on display for killing a Quetzal.

Birds of Ambergris Caye

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