Little Outdoor Stories
HUNTING THE SACRED BIRD OF THE AZTECS * BY A. HYATT VERRILL a bird the size of a pigeon, its IMAGINE back, head, wings and breast dazzling
metallic-green with golden sheen, its entire lower parts vivid scarlet, a soft, recurved crest curling over the bill and ferny, curved plumes lapping over the wings, while two or three slender, green feathers, a yard or more in length, extend over and beyond the glossy black and white tail. Such is the Quetzal or Resplendent Trogon, sacred bird of the Montezumas, national emblem of Guatemala and the handsomest and most striking of all the gorgeous Trogon family. Although found in nearly every republic of Central America this superb creature is confined entirely to the heavy oak forests of the higher mountains. In these localities his shrill scream may be heard at any *This is one of the shyest as well as one of the most gorgeously plumaged birds of the tropics.— EDITOR.
time, yet it is a difficult matter to even catch a glimpse of his brilliant form as he flits from tree to tree and far more difficult is the task of securing specimens. Apparently fully aware of their beauty and value, these royal birds are exceedingly shy and suspicious, keeping entirely to the topmost branches of the tallest trees, frequently far out of shotgun range. This statement is no exaggeration, for the trees often attain a height of three hundred feet, with the lowest limbs fully one hundred feet above the earth, and I have frequently fired heavy charges of No. 3 shot at a quetzal on the lower branch of one of these forest giants with no other result save a stray leaf or two floating downward. Early morning is the only time at which the bird may be sought with any chance of success. On the morning finally selected for my quetzal hunt, the dripping trees and jungle of the mountain side were still shrouded in the blackness of tropic night as Juan and I made our way up the steep slopes of Turrialba. A queer chap was Juan, woodsman and born hunter, fearing nothing and withal the most superstitious mestizo I ever met. The turn of a leaf, the trill of an insect, or even the direction taken by a column of army ants or soldier crabs, to his mind presaged good or evil luck. The most remarkable of his many quaint beliefs, however, was in the mystic powers of a certain ragged, silk undershirt. Where he originally obtained this curious talisman was a mystery he refused to divulge, yet strangely enough, whenever he wore it, we invariably met with success, while if for any reason left behind— and this was seldom indeed—we returned all but emptyhanded. The fact was, that when without the shirt, he lost all interest in the chase and made no effort to find game, whereas wearing it he was obliged to do his utmost in order to sustain the reputation of his silken charm. At the edge of the woods ran a noisy mountain stream from whose bosom a brace of black-bellied tree ducks arose at our approach. As we forded the torrent a magnificent sun-bittern took wing from among the bowlders and as he fluttered off I dropped him, but alas! for my purposes he was useless, a mangled mass of torn flesh and feathers was all that re-
The Outing Magazine
mained when Juan retrieved him with a peculiar grin on his swarthy face. It was my first acquaintance and I had yet to learn that these handsome birds are one of the most tender and delicate of creatures, with a skin like tissue paper to which the feathers are barely fastened. These sunbitterns are most odd and interesting birds, in shape like a small bittern, feeding habits and motions like a sandpiper, nesting in trees, and with soft, fluffy plumage variegated in red, gray, white, and iridescent green, blue and black. At the report of my gun the till-then silent forest became filled with a thousand screams and cries. From the treetops, macaws and toucans screeched and clattered, a great black, howling monkey leaped, yelling like a maniac, from branch to branch, while parrots, jays and many other birds added to the uproar. From a swale before us a herd of peccaries lumbered off, grunting and squealing, and even a great tapir, rudely aroused from his early morning wallow, crashed through the canebrake on the river bank in plain view, but ere gun could be brought to shoulder the clumsy looking fellow disappeared among the waving reeds. We now pushed forward into the forest, Juan turning and twisting among the great trunks and lianas, where never a sign or landmark blazed a way, as though upon a beaten path. Twice with a gesture he cautioned me not to shoot as the shadowy forms of peccaries crossed our path, and although the temptation was great to slay the little savage pigs I forbore. All this time we were steadily climbing the mountain, but so devious was the way that one scarce realized the ascent. At last Juan slackened his rapid pace and walking cautiously, halted ever and anon to peer ahead and listen. Finally coming to a fallen tree we stopped, and, seating ourselves, waited in silence for some sound from our quarry. From far across a deep and wooded ravine a sound like the sweet chime of church bells floated, but well we both knew no church was hidden there and that 'twas but the strange music of a bellbird or campanero. This bird is a species of cotinga, arrayed modestly in spotless white and golden-brown, its only ornaments a long, fleshy appendage hanging from the forehead and two similar filaments depending from the base of the bill. They
are shy, retiring creatures, keeping in the deepest shadows of the forest and seldom producing their peculiar, metallic notes when man is in the neighborhood. As the last notes of the bell-bird died away there came a ringing challenge, sharp and harsh, from above our heads, and gazing upward I beheld a superb male quetzal perched upon a lianaâ€”his graceful crest erected and his yard-long tail gently rising and falling. Many a rare and beautiful bird
have I killed after hours of patient stalking, but of them all, none has given me the thrill of pleasure that did this, my first quetzal. When at last the beautiful fellow was safely wrapped and placed tenderly in Juan's basket we pushed silently forward, but soon we again heard the never-to-beforgotten note, and as we crouched in the shadows of a tree trunk Juan gave an answering cry. Nearer the call rang out
Little Outdoor Stories in response and again Juan replied Still nearer it sounded, until peering through the leaves I caught momentary glimpses of golden-green and scarlet in a treetop fifty yards away. Juan saw it also and silently we waited hoping that in cariosity it would approach closer. Finding it did not Juan again called and the quetzal, answering, flew to another limb where, apparently afraid that something was wrong, he hopped nervously about, erecting and depressing his crest and flirting his tail, evidently undecided whether to advance or retreat. Although he was far out of shotgun range, fearing he would take alarm and disappear altogether, I decided to try a shot with my .22 rifle, which I had used with great success on hawks, herons and wild turkeys and found so indispensable in my collecting that I invariably carried it when after large or shy birds. The report of the tiny cartridge sounded ridiculously small, but nevertheless, the quetzal came tumbling earthward. Before he fairly reached the ground Juan grasped my arm and pointed to a tree near where he had been perched. At first I saw nothing, and then following his extended finger I discerned a large hole in a decayed limb; "El nido del quetzal" (the nest of the quetzal), whispered Juan, and was greatly surprised to see the slender, green tail feathers of a quetzal protruding from the cavity. Noticing my puzzled expression Juan smiled and led me to the other side of the tree where I saw that the hole extended entirely through the limb, the tail projecting from one side while the head peered forth from the other. Juan assured me that the nest was always constructed in this manner, for the male quetzal, doing a good portion of the sitting, thus makes provision for the accommodation of his long tail. Much to our chagrin the nest was impossible to reach and after looking at it for some time, my companion rapped the tree smartly, whereupon the bird flew out. To have come upon this nest was luck indeed, for I had never seen or read any account of
their breeding habits. We remained in the forest an hour longer and heard several quetzals at a distance but could not decoy one near enough to increase our knowledge of this splendid, shy, tropical bird.