Resplendent Quetzal: National Bird of Guatemala

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Published: January 25, 2023
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Guatemala is a Central American country with a coast on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The landscape is a mix of volcanic mountains, humid rainforests and coastal plains. You can imagine the diverse wildlife in the country especially in some of the undeveloped jungles that still exist. When it comes to birds there are some of the most colorful birds in the world like the scarlet macaw, yellow-headed parrot and Pacific parakeet. Even the turkeys are colorful like the iridescent ocellated turkey. But there is one bird that has captured the hearts of the Guatemalan people. Read on to find out all about the national bird of Guatemala!

What is the National Bird of Guatemala?

The national bird of Guatemala is the resplendent quetzal. These beautiful birds are known for their long elegant tails. During the mating season the males grow out their tail feathers in a spectacular train that can reach 3 feet long. They fly above the tree line and the dive down to impress the females with their tails floating behind them. Now picture these birds as being vibrantly colored with brilliant blue-green bodies, red chests and a yellow beak. The males have feathers that stick up on the top of their head that looks like a fuzzy crew cut. The females are less colorful and lack the elaborate long tail feathers.

The national bird of Guatemala is the resplendent quetzal known for their long elegant tails.

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©Frank Vassen / Creative Commons

How Big is the Resplendent Quetzal?

The resplendent quetzal is surprisingly large when compared to a songbird. They are much bigger than an American robin but not nearly as big as a scarlet macaw. Resplendent quetzals are 14-16 inches long and the tail feathers of the male can be between 12-36 inches. They weigh around 210 g (.46 pounds).

Where do Resplendent Quetzals Live?

Resplendent quetzals live in southern Mexico, the south half of Guatemala, central and western Honduras, along the El Salvador border, spotty areas in Nicaragua, central Costa Rica and over the border into Panama. They inhabit the tropical rainforests and cloud forests high in the canopy or subcanopy. Resplendent quetzals need old decaying trees to make their nests in the bottom of the stumps. During the mating season you will find them paired up but most of the year they are solitary animals.

Resplendent quetzal

Resplendent quetzals need old decaying trees to make their nests in the bottom of the stumps.

©iStock.com/Kris Meaney

Why is the Resplendent Quetzal the National Bird of Guatemala?

The history of the resplendent quetzal dates back to early Mayan times. The legend says that a resplendent quetzal was a spirit guide for Tecún Umán. He was a Mayan prince who was honored for his role in fighting the Spanish conquests. In a fight between Tecún Umán and Pedro de Alvarado, despite a valiant effort, Tecún Umán was killed. The story goes that a resplendent quetzal flew down and landed on his chest, aware of the great loss, and its feathers were covered in blood. According to the legend, this is how they got their bright red chests today.

What Does the Resplendent Quetzal Symbolize?

Quetzals are a symbol of liberty and freedom because they do not survive well in captivity. Some legends say that they die of sadness if they are ever kept caged. While some parrots and parakeets are popular in the pet trade quetzals are rarely kept as pet.

Quetzals are a symbol of liberty and freedom

Quetzals are a symbol of liberty and freedom because they do not survive well in captivity.

©iStock.com/Carole Palmer

Is the Resplendent Quetzal Featured on the Money of Guatemala?

Yes. In fact the currency of Guatemala is called the “quetzal”. In 1925, President José María Orellana declared that the new currency would replace the peso. The coins all feature the coat of arms which features a beautiful resplendent quetzal at the top. The back of the 1 quetzel features a dove and the word “Paz” which means “peace” in Spanish. The back of the 50 centavos features a White nun orchid, or La Monja Blanca, which is the national flower of Guatemala.

Guatemala money features the resplendent quetza

The resplendent quetzal is featured on the money of Guatemala.

©iStock.com/Andrzej Rostek

Is the National Bird of Guatemala on the Flag?

Yes! The resplendent quetzal is featured on the flag of Guatemala. The flag has the colorful coat of arms in the center and the honored quetzal is perched on top of a scroll. The scroll reads, “LIBERTAD15 DE SEPTEMBRE DE 1821” which means Liberty on September 15, 1821. Behind the scroll are two crossed rifles and two crossed swords. A wreath of laurel is on the edges of the light blue background. The flag itself is three equal vertical stripes of blue, white and blue.

The flag of Guatemala features the resplendent quetzal

The resplendent quetzal is featured on the flag of Guatemala perched on top of a scroll.

©bodrumsurf/Shutterstock.com

Are Resplendent Quetzals Endangered Animals?

Resplendent quetzals are considered “near threatened” by the IUCN. There are an estimated 20,000-49,999 left in the wild with populations decreasing due to deforestation. Because they nest in old, decaying tree stumps, if a forest is destroyed to build residential or commercial properties, these old growth areas also get destroyed. Their brilliant tail feathers are often used in jewelry and artwork, but their feathers are removed and the birds are set free.

Are There Any Endangered Animals That Live in Guatemala?

Some of the most threatened animals are still surviving in Guatemala. Jaguars, sea turtles and howler monkeys are all either threatened or endangered. Jaguars are considered “Near Threatened” and in Guatemala live mostly in the northern jungles. Sea turtles, like the Olive Ridley, green sea turtle and critically endangered leatherback can be seen along the shores of the country. The Yucatan black howler monkey is listed as endangered and can only be found in northern Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

What Other Animals Live in Guatemala?

Other animals that live in Guatemala include both American crocodiles and Morelet’s crocodile (or sometimes called Mexican crocodile). The Morelet’s crocodile are only found in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The average American crocodile is 13-16 feet but they have been recorded to reach 20 feet. Morelet’s on the other hand are closer to 10 feet long.

MORELET'S CROCODILE

The Morelet’s crocodile are only found in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala reaching around 10 feet in length.

©iStock.com/slowmotiongli

Within the warm, humid rainforest habitats you can imagine there are plenty of snakes, and yes, many of them are venomous. There are 18 different venomous snake species in Guatemala including coral snakes with their red, yellow and black banding and a variety of pit vipers and the Fer-de-lance (some can get to be 7 feet long!).

Other animals include the Baird’s tapir, opossum, puma, margay, ocelot and monkeys (howler monkeys and spider monkeys are the most common). Off the coast you can take a whale watching tour where you might see humpback whales (December to April) or bottlenose dolphins, blue marlin, swordfish and tuna. Pelicans can be found along the coast and the brown pelican is the national bird of Barbados, but when it comes to Guatemala the rich history behind the quetzal proves that it is worthy choice as the national bird of Guatemala.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Harry Collins


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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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