|A male resplendent quetzal. Photograph by|
The male of the resplendent quetzal was a bird the ancient Maya liked to find, as they would take the long feathers that grow on the top side of its tail's base. These feathers -- which are classified as "coverts" -- were not only very valuable to the Maya but was part of their culture in other ways too.
The Coverts of the Male Resplendent Quetzal
The male quetzal has different colors of feathers on different parts of its body -- some of these feathers are a bright green and are iridescent. (When something is iridescent, it means that it shows different colors, depending on how the light hits it.) Some of male's coverts, which can grow as long as 3.3 feet (around 40 inches,) are among the iridescent feathers of the male resplendent quetzal.
|Another shot of a male resplendent quetzal by Andy Wraithmell.|
Mesoamericans everywhere thought the male resplendent quetzal's coverts were beautiful and traded for them. The northern highlands is a known location for ancient Maya who traded these feathers.
Quetzals are not easy to keep. So the ancient Maya had to go out and find the quetzals to take their coverts. (Coverts do grow back.) During the Postclassic Period, quetzal feathers became even more popular across Mesoamerica. Among the ancient Maya, only elites were allowed to have quetzal feathers. (The Bonampak Murals and stelae are places to look for examples of how the ancient Maya used quetzal feathers as headdresses.)
Sometimes in Classic Maya art, you see a ruler near a bundle of items -- it's a scene of the ruler getting tribute. Sometimes among the goods are quetzal feathers.
In Religion and in Rulership
The ancient Maya also looked at the corn god as being connected with quetzal feathers (as well as jade.) One theory think's it's possible that the quetzal was a form of the maize god's (god E's) wife.
The resplendent quetzal's coverts were also connected to the Principal Bird Deity. (The ancient Maya believed that this being had a number of connections, including a connection to valuable things.) Speaking of which, from the Preclassic Period onward, these feathers were a popular choice of feather for adding to ancient Maya rulers' headdresses. There's a theory that the feathers -- when used as part of headdresses, were a symbol of the Principal Bird Deity.)
Other than rulers, gods wearing headdresses with quetzal feathers are something you can find in ancient Maya art. (On a related note, the ancient Maya liked to draw quetzals and macaws together. It may be that the ancient Maya somehow thought of these two birds as connected.)
Consideration: As a Name
The word for quetzal in the ancient Mayan language used by the elites is k'uk'. Archaeologists have found that k'uk' was a word that rulers sometimes used as part of their titles as well as their names. One example of a ruler who had k'uk' in his name is a ruler of Copan called Yax K'uk' Mo'. Another example is a ruler of Palenque whose name glyph is a mix of k'uk' and the word for jaguar (bahlam) -- archaeologists have a number of names for him, including K'uk' Bahlam I and Kuk.
Google Books: "Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas"; 2017
Springer Link: "Human Ecology" volume 44, issue 4: "Birds of a Feather: Exploring the Acquisition of Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) Tail Coverts in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica"; Cara Grace Tremain; August 2016
Hampshire College: “Birds and Environmental Change in the Maya Area”; Peter Stuart; May 2015
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"Google Books: DK Smithsonian "Wildlife of the World"; 2015
Cornell University: The Cornell Lab of Orinthology: Neotropical Birds: "Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno"; A. A. Dayer; 2010
Google Books: "Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities"; Karen Bassie-Sweet; 2008
Google Books: "Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001
Google Books; "The A to Z of Ancient Mesoamerica"; Joel W. Palka; 2000
San Francisco State University: "The Biogeography of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno)"; Paul Pribor; In progress 5/24/99
ResearchGate: "Revista de biologia tropical" Volume 42, Issue 2: "Spatial organization of the structural color system in the quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno (Aves: Trogonidae) and evolutionary implications"; Julian Monge Nájera, Francisco Hernandez-Chavarria; January 1994
Mesoweb Encyclopedia: K'uk Bahlam I
Encyclopedia Britannica: Quetzal
Flickr: "Resplendent Quetzal"; Andy Wraithmell; June 16, 2017
Flickr: "Resplendent Quetzal; Andy Wraithmell; June 16, 2017