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Costa Rica Bird Watching; Experiencing the Beauty of the Quetzal

Costa Rica Travel – After catching my breath from the heart-throbbing view of a resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica, I thought about the bird’s influence on people.

costa rica quetzalBygone Mayans and Aztecs of Mesoamerica believed the bird symbolized their god Quetzalcoatl, who could spiral up to the sky like the quetzal (pronounced ket-sal). Central Americans today, with no less admiration, call it the “rare jewel bird of the world.”

I’d agree, as would the people my wife and I guided on a recent photography tour of Costa Rica. We gawked at a luminously plumed breeding male along with an ethereally plumed female. Everybody’s cameras clicked to the beat of their throbbing hearts.

The pigeon-size birds with glitzy, iridescent plumage live in the dense canopy of verdant mountain rainforests. The male arrests attention with its shimmering green hues on the head, neck, chest and back, accented by brilliant crimson on its breast and belly.

But the male’s eye-popping plumage is its emerald-green twin tail streamers, extending up to 3 feet beyond the bird’s 14-inch body. The streamers look like flamboyant coattails wafting in the breeze and scissoring in flight, and the male spiritedly flaunts his tail when courting a female.

A female is subtly beautiful, with a green back, coppery-green head and brownish-gray belly easing into red lower down. She has no train of tail feathers, though, and a black beak in contrast to a male’s yellow one.

The fruit-eating birds depend on forests with trees in the laurel family that produce berries and fruits, particularly a kind of wild avocado. Laurel trees in turn depend on quetzals’ droppings to disperse seeds throughout the rainforest.

But the birds also consume insects, lizards and frogs. I saw the male snap up a dragonfly in its beak.

Short but powerful beaks enable the birds to hollow a hole inside a rotting tree or in a tall tree stump, which is where we saw them. The female lays two eggs on the floor of the hole sans nesting material, and the young fledge in about 30 days.

The male coaches the juveniles to fly, patiently tending to them, but eventually making the young fly on their own. Juveniles will not acquire their dazzling adult plumage until they are 3 years old.

Legend says resplendent quetzals cannot survive in captivity and must live free. Hence, the birds symbolize liberty for people of Central America, like bald eagles do for people of the United States.

By Gary Clark –

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