When I saw my first trogon in the Yucatan, the Gartered Trogon, the visual impact of those colors initially swamped my brain. After I took a few photos and settled down, I realized how much smaller it was than my initial impression. Yes, the colors were (and are) dazzling! But the feathered tails of trogons, less the quetzals, take up half or more of their bodies. Most trogons in the New World vary in size from nine inches to a foot or so. And in typical trogon stance, perch upright with great posture. However, in this image, the bird prepares to preen.
GARTERED TROGON (formerly VIOLACEOUS now split into Amazonian, Guianan, and Gartered Trogon), Trogon caligatus, Coa Violácea Norteña (Spanish), Ku’ux (Mayan)
Regardless of the name change from violaceous, males of these three species have specific vocalizations and yellow eye rings unlike other male trogons.
Sound link to Gartered Trogon:
However, like other trogons it feeds on fruits and insects and is a cavity nester. But not only does it nest in termitaria but also in wasp nests, ant nests, and root balls. The mystery continues on why the ants, termites, or wasps don’t attack these birds. In research from 1959 it was the only bird species known to nest in wasp nests. A pair may devour all the wasps of the vespiary then claim the papery house. That task could take up to two weeks with both sexes dining on the wasps until their home empties of its inhabitants.
In the Yucatan this permanent resident inhabits semi-humid jungles or mangroves. Its range varies from eastern Mexico to Venezuela, and then Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Some researchers called it a non-forest bird living along forest borders, open woods, plantations, and mangroves.
BLACK-THROATED TROGON, Trogon rufus, Coa Garganta Negra or Trogón Amarillo (Spanish)
Unlike the previous Gartered Trogon, the nine inch Black-throated Trogon prefers denser forests including cacao plantations and occurs in three disjunct regions: middle America down to northwestern South America and then two other separate areas in South America. This species primarily eats insects but will dine on fruit.
It also differs from the Gartered Trogon in building a shallow nest mainly in decaying wood with an exposed front and can be easily seen. Although the pair excavates the woody nest, they don’t add a lining and let wood chips fall where they may.
Like other trogons, this species perches upright. Scientists refer to the lack of activity with trogons as “sluggish.” Typically they show their back and can turn their head 180 degrees to look over their shoulders and just sit still. This stillness may aid in predator avoidance. But their weak legs and feet are undeveloped so the bird must use its wings to turn around on a branch.
What I haven’t mentioned is that the belly of a female trogon is usually colored like the male as in this Orange-bellied Trogon. However most females have gray or brown upper parts and chest.
All that glitters isn’t gold, but sometimes green. An exception to the gray/brown backs and chests of female trogons is the female Resplendent Quetzal. She differs from other females with her larger size and that glittery green plumage. Plumage colors may look blue depending on the light.
RESPLENDENT QUETZAL, Pharomachus mocinno, Quetzal Centroamericano (Spanish)
QUETZAL.QUETZALCOATL. KUKULKÁN. A “plumed serpent” deity of Mesoamerica including Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, Maya and other indigenous tribes derived from quetzalli, a long green feather and coatl, a serpent. The Maya called this god Kukulkán and beginning with the Olmec, Quetzalcohuatl.
For those of us living in Mexico, we know of the plumed serpent permanently built at El Castillo, (Temple of the Kukulcan) at Chichén-Itzá, one of the seven New Wonders of the World.
We’ve repeatedly heard the story about this Atzec god, Quetzalcoatl, who was to appear as a god-king ruler. When the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortez, arrived in Mexico in 1519, Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, gifted Cortez,the mistaken “Quetzalcoatl,” a head-dress of quetzal plumes.
But as legends go, research hasn’t verified the Spanish version about Cortez in any native document. In fact, the Olmecs seemed to be the originator of this god 2000 years before the Aztecs from 1200-400 BC. Many myths, folklore, and various stories still persist and Quetzalcoatl varied in belief and form from a serpent to a human.
Considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the Americas, the Resplendent Quetzal adorns its colorful body with a couple of two foot long streamers during the breeding season. Most birds, including trogons, produce 12 tail feathers called retrices. As much as the plumes look like tail feathers, they are actually uppertail coverts, which means these feathers cover over other feathers. If they are under the tail, they’re called undertail coverts.
By the way, when a peacock spreads its tail during courtship, those feathers are actually uppertail coverts. The real tail is small and underneath those elegant feathers. You get the idea; it’s a covert operation.
During courtship the quetzal male shows off those long plumes in a flight display above the trees and calls loudly. And the male doesn’t grow those two splendid feathers until three years of age. Evidently no other rain-forest bird does this. Also it backs off a perch to avoid tangling the plumes to become a quetzal pretzel. In addition both sexes have smaller bills than other trogons and each also sport a bushy crest. All these features make them unique in the trogon family.
10 second flight call of male Resplendent Quetzal: Click on left button, then click on 10 second sonogram
Not only are those streamers attractive to the female birds, but the Maya and Aztecs considered this a sacred species. Birds were captured to collect their two plumes and then released. Death awaited anyone who killed a quetzal. Feathers were used in headdresses for the royalty of the Maya and other indigenous tribes.
Primarily a fruit eater, this quetzal usually plucks fruit on the wing. Its flight muscles weigh about one fourth of its weight suggesting the importance of aerial feeding. It may also eat lizards and insects and will feed the young insects. The favorite food seems to be an aguacatillo, a small avocado. Suspended on a long stem, the bird grabs it in mid-air to rip it off the stem and swallows it whole. Then the bird regurgitates the seed. This action may help with seed dispersal.
Most trogons don’t migrate but this quetzal and another quetzal; living in a montane habitat seasonally migrate mid-slope from the cloud forest. Resplendent Quetzals live from southern Mexico to western Panama while a smaller subspecies lives in eastern Panama and the Andes.
That migration movement seems to occur in Costa Rica at the ripening of the wild avocado trees and similar species. However, that doesn’t hold true in Mexico according to another source. Both sexes build the nest and share in incubation and will defend their nest against squirrels and Emerald Toucanets. Apparently nest failure may be as high as 67-78% and parents may raise two clutches.
To learn about common trogon traits, check out part 1: https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/08/backyard-birding-in-merida-yucatan-and-beyond-tantalizing-trogons-part-1-of-2/
LET NATURE’S MARVELS TANTALIZE YOU.
AUHTOR’S NOTES: Even though these 43 species occur around the world, most of the information I’ve gleaned originates from studies mainly in Costa Rica with some from Guatemala. What I usually realize is one or two sources that, like fruit seeds, are regurgitated throughout the internet, whether based on fact, anecdote, and lots of conflicting scientific information. Yet, I’m fascinated by and try to discern current facts and attempt to be accurate from a plethora of references.
Although I have only a few images of trogons, some photos better or worse than others, I wanted to share some amazing traits of this family. Would you have considered birds could nest in termite nests or wasp nests? Would you ever have thought of a unique toe structure other than the realization of how many toes that birds may or may not have? Did you know that the nutmeg spice originated from a tree or that a trogon could be the seed disperser?
DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on details about these species:
Sal a Pajarear Yucatan; Birds & Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula; A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America; Trogons, Laughing Falcons, and Other Neotropical Birds:A Bird Watcher’s Adventures in Tropical America; A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica; The Birds of Panama A Field Guide; The Minds of Birds; Handbook of Bird Biology; Birds of Peru; The Life of Birds
BirdLife International (2008) The Resplendent Quetzal in Aztec and Mayan culture.
Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” photographer and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her monthly column features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and also wildlife beyond the Yucatan.
Contact: email@example.com All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo
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