An amazing bird once viewed as a sacred symbol by the Maya and Aztecs now faces an uncertain future due to habitat loss, population fragmentation and illegal trafficking.

The resplendent quetzal, a breathtakingly beautiful bird with tail feathers in males nearly twice the length of their bodies, once roamed through much of Southern Mexico and six other countries. That’s no longer the case. “All of these seven countries have serious problems of habitat loss and fragmentation,” says one of the few researchers to study the species, Sofia Solorzano of National Autonomous University of Mexico. “I feel that if the habitat loss and fragmentation are not stopped the future for remnant populations is genetic isolation, reduction of population sizes and, consequently, rapid local extinctions.” In fact, she has already documented some local extirpations as well as degraded forests that each hold just a handful of remaining birds.

Compounding the problem is that Solorzano’s previous research indicated that resplendent quetzals are actually two species, not the single species with two subspecies currently recognized by the conservation community. A genetic and morphological study she published in 2010 found that the birds in Mexico and Nicaragua are one species, Pharomachrus mocinno, while the birds in the more southern countries are a second species, P. costaricensis. This means that each species has a more limited population and range and is more threatened than previously realized.

Both quetzal species are specialized fruit eaters and rely on large dead or dying trees with soft wood, in which they carve their nests. Those food supplies and trees are now in short supply. Solorzano says many of the birds’ forest habitats have been chopped down to make way for coffee plantations, livestock pastures or other farming. She has documented what she described as “drastic fragmentation” of quetzal habitat in southern Mexico. The establishment of some protected areas has helped, but she says is hasn’t been enough.

Of course, habitat loss is not the quetzals’ only threat. The species also have several natural predators, including toucan birds and squirrels that eat their eggs or small chicks. Larger birds of prey such as owls, falcons and hawks also kill the adult quetzals. Meanwhile, humans have been known to hunt them for their feathers—something that would have been forbidden during the days of the Maya and Aztec—or for the illegal pet trade, even though there is no history of the birds surviving in captivity.

Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any dedicated quetzal conservation efforts, despite the birds’ historical and cultural significance and the fact that they are the central image of the Guatemalan flag. “I think it is time to seriously protect this bird and its breeding and migratory habitats,” Solorzano says. She calls the resplendent quetzal a “resilient” bird and predicted that it could return to its previous habitats if they are protected. “We will have quetzals if the deforestation is stopped,” she said.

Photo 1 © Fulvio Eccardi, courtesy of National Autonomous University of Mexico. Photo 2 by Frank Vassen. Used under Creative Commons license