By Julie Etra
Meet the Trogonidae, an avian family with two branches of stunningly attractive birds – the trogons and the quetzals. There are 46 species altogether, 25 of them occurring in the Western Hemisphere. There are at least nine species of trogons in Mexico; in Costa Rica there are nine species as well, including two “endemics” (occurring only in Costa Rica), one of which is the rare Baird’s trogon. The fossil record of trogons dates back 49 million years to the Early Eocene; both trogons and quetzals have played an important role in Latin American culture since well before the Spanish arrived.
Along the coast of Oaxaca, the citreoline trogon (Trogon citreolus), also known in Mexico as the Coa citrina, is one of the most beautiful birds of the area, and has a very distinct but subtle call (https://ebird.org/species/cittro1).
Although some birding sources describe its range as being limited to southern and western Mexico, it has actually been found from Tamaulipas in northern Mexico all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya in western Costa Rica. In general, this trogon prefers drier or more arid habitats and is happy in our bosque caducifolio (winter deciduous forest). Habitat includes arid to semiarid woodlands, thorn forests, plantations, hedgerows, and other semi-open areas with taller trees.
In our neighborhood in Huatulco (Conejos), we often see a male citreoline trogon perched in the neem tree outside our upstairs bathroom. It is closely related to the elegant trogon (Trogon elegans), which is found as far north as southern Arizona and as far south as Costa Rica, but apparently not along our coast (the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology shows its habitat skipping right over Oaxaca, and picking up again in Guatemala and extending to northern Costa Rica). The citreoline trogon is also related to the resplendent quetzal (more on this later). The word trogon is Greek for “nibbling” or “gnawing.” These birds excavate and peck holes in trees and termite nests.
Like other trogons, the citreoline trogon has a varied diet that includes insects and fruits. They feed on the wing, so they are short legged with weak feet and don’t walk or hop very well. Unique features of all trogons are their heterodactyl feet where the outermost front toe points backwards, resulting in two toes in the front and two in the back. They also have short bristles around the nares (nasal passage of the beak). The citreoline trogon can be hard to detect, as it sits upright and usually motionless, except when foraging, displaying mating behavior, and feeding newly hatched chicks. They have a yellow belly and black or slate colored chest and may appear a bit dull in color until the light changes and one can see their gorgeous blue-green/golden-green iridescence. Another distinguishing characteristic is their pale-yellow pupils. The female is similar to the male in appearance.
The most compelling reference on citreoline trogon nesting behavior is old but fascinating; Alexander Skutch published “The Life History of the Citreoline Trogon” in The Condor in July of 1948. They make their nests in termitaria (termite nests). The birds excavate a cylindrical opening, with the male usually taking the lead. This is an arduous task, due to the tough material from which the termitarium is constructed and the fact that the trogons typically build the nest in the heat of the day versus in the cooler mornings, which is what one would expect in a hot climate. One account indicated that it takes the couple roughly six days to complete the nest, which is not lined and remains occupied by termites (perhaps the trogon occupancy deters termite predators).
The clutch consists of three eggs. The males and females share incubation duties, which lasts around 19 days. The hatchlings are fed regurgitated insects by both parents; this otherwise arboreal bird can be observed on the ground prior to entering the nest to feed the hatchlings until they are almost mature enough to leave at 16-17 days. The termites go to work resealing their nest after the birds have flown.
The most well-known trogon is the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), in my opinion the most magnificent of all, especially the male with his long, elegant, colorful (brilliant teal), and iridescent tail. The birds have a very limited range, and are only found in cool tropical cloud forests with high humidity. In Mexico they can be found in Chiapas, and farther south in Guatemala and Costa Rica. The resplendent quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and the namesake of the Guatemalan currency (the quetzal). We were exceptionally fortunate to observe a nesting pair in Monteverde, Costa Rica, a few years ago.
The resplendent quetzal is well known in Mexican (and Central American, particularly Guatemalan) culture – quetzal feathers, along with feathers of the lovely cotinga, roseate spoonbill, and Piaya cayana (squirrel cuckoo), formed Moctezuma’s penacho, or headdress. There is a reproduction of the original in the Museo Nacional de Anthropología e Historia; the original is in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, Austria, and may (or may not) be allowed to return to Mexico on an extended visit. Quetzal feathers were the most valued and precious components of headdresses of Aztec (Nahuatl) emperors and the higher nobility, and the birds were raised in captivity for this purpose or trapped and the feathers harvested, as it was a crime to kill them.
If you’re not an avid bird watcher on your own, I highly recommend spending an early morning with a local bird guide to catch sight of not only the trogon, but all our diverse, rich Oaxacan coast bird life. (See the article “A Birdwatching Guide for Huatulco” elsewhere in this issue.)