Jean-Jacques Rabin, better known as John James Audubon, was born on April 26, 1785 in Les Cayes, Saint-Dominigue, now known as Haiti. His name graces the National Audubon Society, founded to protect waterbird populations. Audubon was both a naturalist and an artist. He painted birds in beautiful color plates; his book The Birds of America is one of the finest and most detailed ornithological works ever completed. According to the Aubudon Organization, “[p]rinted between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds (Havell edition), all reproduced from hand-engraved plates, and is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.” My parents owned this gorgeous book and we’d leaf through the pages as we watched birds at the feeder on the balcony.
In his honor I am reprinting the post I wrote after Uwe and I visited Costa Rica and had the great luck to spot the magical, elusive quetzal. – Jadi
What’s quetzal, anyway? A symptom brought on in quarantine for the corona virus?
Glad you asked. The quetzal is a legend, a myth, a member of the trogon family, and one really cool bird. It’s also very, very elusive.
Okay. And what the hell is a trogon?
Let’s start at the top. Until just now, I didn’t know. Trogon comes from the Greek and means ‘nibbling’, because quetzals carve through rotting wood to make their nests in tree trunks. The trogon family of birds is an exclusive club: they are the only animal with a heterodactyl toe arrangement.  The resplendent quetzal lives only in a narrow range of cloud forests at high elevations in Central America. They don’t migrate, and like altitudes of 4,000–10,000 ft (1,200–3,000 m).
A lot of people think it’s the most beautiful bird in the world. The quetzal was sacred to the Aztecs and Mayans. The Aztecs associated the bird with the snake god, Quetzalcoatl. Kings and nobles wore quetzal feather headdresses for special ceremonies.
And oh my god, those feathers…. The head and back of the bird are a brilliant green, the belly feathers are bright red. The female has more gray on her chest, and black and white in her tail, while the male has incredibly long streaming tail feathers that trail up to three feet (!) behind him. These don’t grow until the bird is at least three years old.
The quetzal’s big, about 36-40 cm or 14-16 inches long. But its brilliant green feathers are iridescent and blend perfectly into the cloud forest foliage. For a large bird, the quetzal is surprisingly hard to spot.
So when we planned our trip to Costa Rica (I wrote this in March 2020, after two weeks of the virus lock down, and already our trip felt like a different life time rather than just a few weeks earlier), we hoped we’d get lucky enough to spot a quetzal. We went to the Monteverde cloud forest region. One day we joined a tour to the smaller and less crowded Curi Cancha Reserve. Amazingly enough we saw a pair of quetzals! Quetzals are monogamous – and there they were, male and female! Thank god for the guides that day, because there’s no way we would have sighted the birds on our own. They’re just too perfectly camouflaged. I only have one photo for you, but hopefully it was worth reading this post to get to it.
It was magic to see a quetzal pair. We got lucky that day.
In memory of John James Audubon, April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851
NOTES:  Dictionary.com explains heterodactyl is “having the first and fourth toes directed backward, and the second and third forward, as in trogons”. Well, what do you know. This is my second new word for the week. Trogon was the first. Resplendent quetzal © Jadi Campbell 2020. Previously published as Quetzal. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s animal photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.
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