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The colorful quetzal is facing extinction

UNAM researcher blames hunting, loss of habitat

The strikingly colorful quetzal, the iconic Mesoamerican bird, is on the brink of extinction, says a researcher from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of México, and their biggest threat is hunting by humans for their feathers, or to be sold as pets.

Quetzals are found in forests and woodlands, especially in humid highlands, and five different species have been identified. The best-known of the five is the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), whose habitat spreads from the cloud forests of Chiapas to Panama. The male is metallic green above and crimson below, with a long curving tail that in the breeding season is twice as long as its body.

The most recognizable feature of these largely solitary birds is their iridescent green or golden-green color, with a red belly. A fairly large bird at more than 32 centimeters in length, the quetzal feeds on fruits, berries, insects and small vertebrates, such as frogs. Even with their famous bright plumage, they can be hard to see in their natural wooded habitat.

In pre-hispanic times, quetzal feather were prized more highly than gold, and were harvested from live birds that were then released. Among the Mayas, to kill a quetzal was a capital offense. That is no longer the case.

UNAM researcher Sofía Solórzano Lujano says several factors threaten the resplendent quetzal, such as plunder, illegal trade and the fragmentation and destruction of their habitat.

The birds are also have natural predators, like green toucanets, squirrels and other nocturnal mammals that feed on their chicks and eggs. Owls and hawks can also attack and kill the adults.

But Solórzano says that humans, by far, represent the greatest threat to the birds. Quetzals are hunted for their feathers, or to be sold as pets. “Quetzals are unable to live in captivity; once captured they refuse to feed and die,” she said.

An additional factor threatening the birds is the loss of habitat: to date, up to 70% of their nesting grounds have disappeared due to deforestation and their conversion to coffee and maize farming land, the researcher explained.

Solórzano said conservation of a migratory species such as the quetzal is a complex task that requires not only the protection of nesting forests, but migratory ones, too.

Source: Terra (sp)

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