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Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Quetzal's Put in place Central American History

By Linda Patterson

The beautiful and elusive quetzal is one of Central America's most striking and remarkable animal denizens. Native to the jungle highlands of Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Belize, today the quetzal is not the most widely-known tropical bird; however, it has a long history of admiration and even reverence from native peoples stretching back to the Aztec and Maya empires of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The encroaching presence of man and the constant danger of hungry predators has made it a rare animal, difficult for the average tourist to glimpse, but well worth the effort to any fan of exotic birds or natural beauty.

Nahuatl Namesake

The quetzal, of which there are six species, is named for the brilliance of its feathers, especially in the tail. In the Nahuatl language spoken by the ancient Aztecs, the word "quetzal" is a reference to this plumage; "quetz" means literally "to stand up," as the long feathers covering the bird's hind quarters can be seen to do. The resplendent quetzal, perhaps the most recognized of this still rather obscure breed, was the first species to be given this title; along with its sibling genera, its population skirts the edge of ecological jeopardy, due to a combination of human encroachment and low birth rates.

Bird Apotheosis

The ancient Mesoamericans knew and widely respected the quetzal, which shared its name with some of the Maya and Aztec religions' most important deities. Kukulkan and Quetzalcoatl were both gods described as feathered serpents, whose birdlike qualities most likely derived from observing the quetzal's unusual and attractive coloration and plumage. The god Quetzalcoatl was famously the Aztec god of learning and rebirth, and was mythologically responsible for the creation of humanity and for providing it with life-sustaining maize, the practice of farming having been developed by the Mayans thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot on the continent.

National Bird

Not only is the Quetzal the national bird of Guatemala, but the country's currency has shared its name since 1925, when President Jose Maria Orellana instituted the quetzal as a replacement for the peso. Both coin and bill forms of the quetzal exist, and it is divided into 100 centavos, or "lenes" as they are popularly known. The bills themselves do not carry the image of the quetzal, but rather famous leaders and historical scenes important to Guatemalan national identity.

Catching a Glimpse

Finding the quetzal in its natural habitat can be a tiring and frustrating experience. You might imagine that a bird with such glistening green feathers (and a bright red underbelly to boot) might have difficulty concealing itself, but the quetzal can fade into its jungle surroundings with surprising ease. Therefore, if you're planning an expedition to glimpse this rare and amazing bird, consider enlisting the aid of a guide by contacting a local bird-watching agency. The best areas to find the quetzal lie outside of the lowland jungles of the northern Yucatan, which are generally too hot for the bird's comfort, but a guide will be able to point out the best locations and times to snap a photo or catch a glimpse of these golden-green beauties in their wild habitat. Hearing the quetzal's call is somewhat easier, a feat which can be accomplished quite simply at a variety of popular Mayan archaeological sites, such as Chichn Itz and Tikal. Standing in an open plaza or atop a pyramid and clapping one's hands is likely to elicit the signature call of the quetzal in response, which must have been a familiar sound to all the ancient Mesoamericans who once called those stole relics their homes.

About the Author:

Bird watching in the Yucatan Peninsula is a great experience. has lots of Birding information.

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