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What is a Quetzal and Where to See Quetzals in Monteverde?

A colorful bird perched on a tree branch

Resplendent Quetzal Spotted in Monteverde

A fantastic variety of birds occur in Costa Rica and with more than 900 species to choose from, it can be tough to pick the most spectacular bird of all. However, if we had to settle on one species, it would have to the Resplendent Quetzal.

The iridescent green and scarlet plumage is so breathtaking, Mayan peoples associated it with the deity Quetzalcoatl! Also known to Aztec peoples, the word “quetzal” comes from their Nahuatl language and means “tall standing plume”.

Around the size of a large pigeon with tail plumes that can be more than two feet in length, the male Resplendent Quetzal is one of the more striking bird species that live in cloud forest habitats. Ranging from Chiapas, Mexico to western Panama, Costa Rica lies in the heart of their range and provides excellent chances at seeing it, especially at such classic birding sites as Monteverde. 

a small bird perched on a tree branchThe female Resplendent Quetzal lacks the long tail and bright colors of the male.

The quetzal can only live in mature cloud forests from around 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) to 9,000 feet (3,000 meters) where Lauraceous trees provide its main food source. Known as “aguacatillos” (small avocadoes), quetzals rely upon and track this energy rich fruit and pick it from the tree in hovering flight. During the breeding season, they also feed small lizards to their young.

Breeding occurs from February to April with pairs laying one or two eggs in a hole excavated from the soft wood of a dead, decayed tree trunk and is preceded by males giving mellow whistled calls and display flights accompanied by loud cackling vocalizations. Nesting time is when young birds are most susceptible to such predators as toucans and snakes whereas adults also have to watch out for Bicolored Hawks and other large raptor species.

The best places to see Quetzals in Monteverde include the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, however in recent years it has been spotted more frequently in the Curi Cancha Nature Preserve.

Other facts about the Resplendent Quetzal include:

  • The long tail feathers are actually the tail coverts, not the tail itself.
  • “Quetzal” is pronounced “ket-zal”.
  • In Mayan culture, this species is a symbol of freedom.
  • Considered “Near Threatened” because of habitat destruction, in Costa Rica, healthy populations of Resplendent Quetzal occur in various protected areas.