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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Symbol of Liberty: The Resplendent Quetzal

Published 12/11/12

In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the second installment, written by Monica.

With so many beautiful and fascinating birds in the world it is difficult to select just one as a personal favorite. But someone asked me once, “If you were to get a tattoo of a bird, what would you choose?” Without hesitation (OK, I paused for a moment because I don’t have any tattoos and don’t know that I ever will), I said quetzal. The specific species I was envisioning was the resplendent quetzal.

The reasons for this selection are twofold. For one, the resplendent quetzal (pronounced kets-al) is arguably one of the most stunning members of the avian world, with its iridescent green-gold to blue-violet body, with a contrasting shock of bright red on its chest, its head adored with a helmet-like crest, and its large eyes, adapted to see easily in dark forests. Last but not least: Its graceful long tail feathers are said to have been used as currency by the Ancient Maya. In fact, name “quetzal” is an ancient Mayan term for tail feather and today Quetzal is the name of Guatemalan currency. The resplendent quetzal is also country’s national bird.

This brings me to the second reason: It is a historical icon of liberty. Quetzals were revered by the Maya. Killing a quetzal was forbidden, so the tail feathers used by the Maya were collected or plucked (ouch!) from live birds who were then released. Keeping the bird in captivity was not an option as the ancient people believed the quetzal would not survive in captivity as it would rather kill itself than be held prisoner.

The quetzal is of great relevance to Guatemalan culture, and is closely associated with the legend of the local hero Tecún Umán, the last king of the K’iche Maya people who fought valiantly against the Spanish army. According to legend the quetzal was Tecun Uman’s spirit guide or “nuhauall” and a quetzal flew overhead as he was slain by conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado on Feb. 20, 1524. The bird flew down and dipped his chest in Tecun Uman’s blood as he died, acquiring the species’ distinctive red chest feathers.

Tecun Uman was declared Guatemala's official national hero on March 22, 1960. And the quetzal adornes the Guatemalan flag as an enduring symbol of liberty.

Now, the question that naturally jumps to one’s mind when learning about the folklore of the quetzal is, “Is it true that the quetzal cannot live in captivity?”

Preeminent wildlife conservationist, photographer and author, Thor Janson, who has written extensively on the quetzal’s natural history, conservation and folklore, answered this question best.

“Yes, it is true, the quetzal can not live in captivity. Although some scientists/zoologists have been able to keep the ‘shell’ of a quetzal in a cage and have even managed to reproduce the quetzal in captivity, they are only shadows of themselves. Quetzals live in the cloud forests, to see one in free flight is to experience its magical presence as it soars, plumes flashing against the sky. Their symbol, their credo, is a life of liberty. The Quetzal, the National Bird of Guatemala, long may they soar.”

Honor the quetzal and take part in National Bird Day by sending an e-card featuring the art of Caia Koopman and a liberated quetzal.

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