General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Professor Cecilia Rossell

Question for June 2009

Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds? Asked by The Blue Coat School. Chosen and answered by Professor Cecilia Rossell.

Replica of Moctezuma II’s famous headdress in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City - said to contain some 500 quetzal and blue cotinga feathers!
Replica of Moctezuma II’s famous headdress in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City - said to contain some 500 quetzal and blue cotinga feathers! (Click on image to enlarge)

English Only the tail feathers of the male birds were taken because they’re very long; they were taken only at a particular time of year to enable the feathers to re-grow. These birds live only in the rainforests of southern Mexico, where the Maya live(d) - the Maya looked after and removed the feathers from the quetzals and traded them with merchants who took them to towns and cities around Mesoamerica. The quetzal has a strikingly brilliant green/turquoise plumage which was considered precious, valuable and highly prized by ancient Mexicans. Such ‘jewels’ were reserved only for the headdresses and crowns of kings, nobles, and the bravest warriors - and for images and figures of deities. The bird was called in Náhuatl quetzal and its feathers quetzalli - this word could mean the feathers themselves or (as a metaphor) something particularly precious or valuable.

Legend claims that the bird, which used to sing brilliantly, has been silent since the Spanish conquest.
Legend claims that the bird, which used to sing brilliantly, has been silent since the Spanish conquest. (Click on image to enlarge)

Español Solamente se tomaban las plumas de la cola de los machos porque éstas son muy largas, se las quitaban en una época del año solamente para dejar que crecieran de nuevo, este tipo de aves unicamente vive en las selvas del sur de México donde vivían los mayas, que eran los que ciudaban y pelaban a los quetzales, se las daban a los comerciantes y ellos las llevaban a las demás ciudades de mesoamérica. Este pájaro tiene un plumaje verde y a veces azulado pero muy brillante por lo que se consideraba como una joya, al igual que otras plumas de otros colores, pero solamente las podían usar los reyes y nobles así como los más valientes guerreros además de las figuras de sus deidades, se usaban para hacer tocados como la corona de los reyes y otros preciosos adornos. Al ave se le llamaba “quetzal” y a sus plumas “quetzalli” o sea que tenían una palabra especial para ellas y que en sentido metafórico quería decir tesoro o joya.

• Photo of a Resplendent Quetzal, taken in Costa Rica by - and many thanks to - Steve Bird (www.birdseekers.co.uk)
• Photo of Moctezuma’s headdress by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Read about D H Lawrence and The Plumed Serpent

Resplendent Quetzal – Wikipedia

National Geographic profile of the Resplendent Quetzal: hear its call!

Quetzal colouring page

Professor Cecilia Rossell has answered 7 questions altogether:

Which was the most precious colour for the Aztecs and why?

Why were cocoa beans so valuable?

Did the Aztecs use make-up?

How did the hearts actually get to the gods?

Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds?

Have traces of real blood been found on the sacrifice knife blades?

How old was the oldest codex?

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