The resplendent Quetzal

Known for its brilliantly colored plumage and long, magnificent tail, the rare quetzal is a sight that anyone, bird enthusiast or not, feels lucky to behold. Once common in the mountain jungles of Central America, the quetzal now appears on the endangered species list, making the task of finding one increasingly difficult for the hordes of avoid bird watchers looking to check a quetzal off their list.

The legend of the quetzal

Long ago, before the Spanish conquistadors imposed the value of gold into Mesoamerican societies, the Mayans and the Aztecs used quetzal feathers as currency. According to Fernández, the birds were thought of as gods due to their incredible beauty and their seemingly miraculous ability to foretell rainstorms with their nesting patterns.

“Quetzals nest right before the rains start because the frogs make great food for their young,” Fernández explained. “They’re a pretty accurate predictor.”

They were so accurate that the Aztecs dubbed the quetzal the god of corn, because of the rain they brought their crops. They looked up at the quetzals tail-waving flight patterns and saw not the mating ritual scientists do, but a sign from the gods that water was coming.

The birds thrive in San Gerardo

As the quetzals continue to disappear from Guatemala, San Gerardo de Dota, in Los Santos region of southern Costa Rica, has seen a resurgence in its populations due to the community’s decision to reforest a number of the area’s clear-cut former dairy pastures.

Just as in the pre-Columbian legends, the quetzals found in San Gerardo are considered divine. Hotels and restaurants feature the bird’s name and more than one of the area’s businesses have constructed church-like stained glass windows depicting the bird’s likeness.

“I would say more than 90 percent of the people who come here do so with the quetzal in mind,” Fernández said.

Our guide Raúl Fernández searches for a quetzal through his binoculars.
Our guide Raúl Fernández searches for a quetzal through his binoculars.

Aguacatillo - Mini Avocados

The main food of the Quetzals is the fruit called "aguacatillo", this one is compared to the common avocado, but significantly smaller.The Quetzal also feeds of nine types of fruits, the blackberry among them.The Quetzal feeds very similar to the Hummingbird where it flights and takes the fruit from the branch and then returns to its perch. In the avocado grove, Fernández continues whistling, pausing every so often to gaze through his binoculars. It’s early July, the middle of the Costa Rican rainy season, when the birds normally retreat deep into the forest to feast on the frogs and lizards newly spawned from the trees’ waterlogged bromeliads.

But the rains came late this year, Fernández assured us, and there is allways a chance that a few quetzals have stuck around for the small, dense avocados that thrive lower in the valley.