Las Verapaces Feature

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The National Bird

Perhaps no bird is tied to the culture and symbolism of a country the way the resplendent quetzal is to Guatemala. As the national emblem, it appears on the country's coat of arms and flag, and it even gives its name to the currency. The elusive quetzal has been revered since the days of the ancient Maya, who called it the winged serpent. Though the Maya often captured quetzals to remove their tail feathers, killing one was a capital offense.

Tradition holds that the quetzal was the spiritual guide of Maya warrior Tecún Umán, Guatemala's national hero. When Tecún Umán was mortally wounded in battle with Spanish explorers, the story says his quetzal alighted on his chest, staining itself with its dying master's blood, forever giving the male bird its distinctive scarlet breast. Legend also says that its sadness over Tecún Umán's death silenced the quetzal's once beautiful song. The quetzal has long symbolized freedom; it is said the bird cannot survive in captivity, a fact that has been proven false by the quetzals that live and breed in Mexico City's zoo.

Central American cloud forests remain the natural habitat of the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), one of six quetzal species, and misty Las Verapaces offers Guatemala's most likely place to spot one. Although the female quetzal is attractive, the male is spectacular, with its distinctive crimson belly, blue-green back, and long tail. (Think "robin" for the body size, but the tail more than doubles that length.) Its conspicuous appearance notwithstanding, the quetzal can be difficult to spot in the lush foliage of the cloud forest. April through June, mating season, is your best bet, when males and females take turns incubating their eggs.

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