The national bird of Guatemala is one of the most magnificent birds in the entire world – the Resplendent Quetzal.  Is there any bird more astoundingly jaw-dropping then the electric green, bright white, and scintillating scarlet Pharomachrus mocinno?  I can neither think of a better bird nor imagine what a better bird could possibly look like.  Guatemala chose wisely when they picked the bird that would be the avian symbol for the country, a bird that even appears on their coat of arms and national flag!

Besides the intrinsic beauty of the bird why else was the Resplendent Quetzal chosen as Guatemala’s national bird?  Well, there is a long cultural connection between the indigenous people of Guatemala and the quetzal, and the bird was both revered and valued by the Mayans, with the extremely long tail feathers being especially precious.  This helps explain why the Guatemalan currency is known as the quetzal.

In his book, Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Naturalist’s Journey Through a Land of Political Turmoil, the late Jonathan Maslow recounts one particularly poignant legend from the time of the Spanish conquest that explains how the Resplendent Quetzal got its red underparts:

At the exact moment when Alvarado pierced Tecum Uman [the chief], the sacred Quetzal fell silent and plummeted to earth, covering the body of the regal [Mayan] with its long and soft green plumes. After keeping a deathwatch through the night, the bird that rose from the cacique’s [chieftan’s] lifeless body was transformed. It was no longer the pure green of jade. Its breast had soaked up the blood of the fallen warrior, and so, too, became crimson, the shade of Mayan blood, as it has remained to this day.*

After reading that is it any wonder that the national bird of Guatemala is the Resplendent Quetzal?

Resplendent Quetzel by Christopher Ciccone (used with permission)

Roger Tory Peterson called the Resplendet Quetzal “The most spectacular bird in the New World” and I have seen no species that could make me question his judgement.  The Guatemalan people apparently agree and therefore have one of the world’s most impressive birds to represent their country.

*I actually found the quote here.

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This post was originally published on 22 April 2011. We hate to keep posts this good buried in the archives!


Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.